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Drainspotting: Japanese Manhole Covers


Japan's visual history is one of unparalleled beauty and design, which today inspires a stunning and surprising array of subcultures, ranging from matchbook art, bento boxes, graffiti, colorful manhole covers and 3D mascots.

"Drainspotting" showcases vibrant photographs of Japan's city-sanctioned manhole covers, or "manhoru." Today, nearly 95% of the 1,780 municipalities in Japan sport their very own customized manhole covers, with imagery that evokes each region's cultural identity, from flora and fauna to landmarks and local festivals.

As a testament to the Japanese aesthetic sensibility in all aspects of life, these pieces of urban art are colorful, intricately designed, and unique to their locale - from Kanto to Chubu to Disneyland Japan.

"This innovative method of brightening up a locality and cheering up its citizens proves how public art can impact everyday life, no matter what form it takes," says author Remo Camerota. "And the humble manhole cover is no exception."

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Aesthetic sensibility in all aspects of life? Has this person seen a Japanese city?

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Good question, Mr Roadrage. I guess to be spending a lot of time looking down at manhole covers, you might not notice, eh?

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Japan’s visual history is one of unparalleled beauty and design

Yes, up until the 17th Centaury. Since then it is square and ugly and utilitarian. There is no beauty in modern Japan, just as there is no soul. Visit Europe and adjust your reference.

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"unique to their locale" And to their location too - usually providing a lethal slippery spot on a curve where a biker can easily lose control and get killed...

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There is a good flickr group of Japanese manhole covers.

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To say that Japan has no soul is to admit to your own lack of one.

Should you have said that "Japan is having trouble identifying with its soul"

or even

"The modern Japanese soul is ugly and utilitarian"

there might be hope for you...

but as it stands perhaps it is you who should go back to Europe and adjust your reference Krs

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I love the manhole covers, and they're almost emblematic of why I love Japan. I'm not terribly impressed by the huge and impressive structures that blow most people away, but rather I prefer the small, almost hidden surprises. Turning a street and finding a small, obviously very old and still well-maintained shrine crammed between two sky-scrapers, or looking down and seeing a beautifully designed manhole cover. It's the contrast that grabs my attention and makes these things truly beautiful.

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I agree Frungy. I am always enamored with them when I take a moment to see the little things. Sometimes we get so caught up in looking for the big amazing things (and are so disappointed when we can't find them) we miss the most precious bits of the culture.

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I have to say I agree with javnation... I am currently living in what could be described as an extremely beautiful part of the Kanto area however, not only do we seem have many more manholes (no picturs on them...) than I ever saw in Tokyo (these are also extremely dangerous for motorbike riders) but we also seem to have an extraordinary amount of telephone/electricity poles all over the place... Many European countries put all of these underground more than 40 years ago! In earthquake-prone Japan, it would seem a lot safer to do the same thing here and allow the natural beauty to be seen as such.

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Yes to Frungy and kokoro. Loads of little things to look at.Hated concrete blocks, but one day when i was looking outside the office window, saw the many concrete blocks and noticed that there was some art there. Life got much better.

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There's only one thing more slippery than wet ice, and that's a wet manhole cover.

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Very well put.

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This is wonderful! I've been taking photographs of these little beauties in Japan for years! Good to know I'm not the only weirdo hanging a camera over an iron plate in the middle of the road!

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Ranger Miffy - Yup, that's me too. I'm the strange gaijin standing in the middle of the road and giving cars evil looks as I try to get a nice shot of the manhole covers. How dare cars and pedestrians attempt to use the road when I'm obviously busy with it??!! ;)

What blows me away is that within some cities there are different ones in different areas. I was in Iga city in Mie prefecture during golden week and there are at least three different designs for the manhole covers within the city. The same thing applies to Nara where I spotted three different designs.

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FightingViking - I also don't like the overhead electricity lines, but there is a sound reason.

Underground cables might be prettier, but they'd also have to be replaced every time there was even a minor tremor since they're far more vulnerable to damage.

If a bundle of cables is underground, packed in dirt on all sides and all the compressed dirt suddenly moves 10cm to the left then the cables all snap because there's no way for the cable to move. The force for a buried object is applied to a single very specific area and that area breaks.

On the other hand long looping cables in the air on poles can sway and shudder without snapping, and if a single pole jerks 10cm to the left then chances are that the slack in the lines will mean there'll be no damage. The force for a free-floating object is applied along the whole line and dissipated in all but the most extreme cases.

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Frungy, care to explain why gas and water pipes don't need to be replaced after a minor tremor but electrical wiring is somehow different? Manhole covers look nice in my area, better than the plain covers back home.

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They are slippery when wet. But then again, so are most tiled side walks. I slip here so much when it rains. Crazy

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Frungy- Japan isn't the only country to experience frequent minor tremors, yet no other 1st world country has an overhead jungle of cables. So I think there must be another reason. As I remember, a senior Japanese figure in the electricity industry blamed it on 'uniquely moist soil'.

As for the manhole covers, yes I like them too. And it was nice to be able to identify them when I was learning kanji. All around the world, manhole covers can provide nice glimpes of history. In London, there are still hundreds of "London Hydraulic Company" covers, from the time when water was pumped under high pressure to drive machinery, lifts etc all over the city.

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Overhead cables are cheaper and quicker fixed than removing rubble and digging for them.

My ward has started moving a lot of the overhead cabling underground though.

I like the Manhole covers in Japan too, apart from the manhole covers there are TONS of "hidden" little treasures around the town.

Example: Walk from Mitaka station towards Inokashira-koen/Gibhlu museum. Besides it being a nice stroll next to sakura trees and streams, look at the pavement. They often have tiles of animals foot-prints and see if you can identify them all.

Lots of those hidden gems around, like memorial plagues, etc.

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"Man-hole"...evocative in both languages.

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If a bundle of cables is underground, packed in dirt on all sides

They aren't packed in dirt on all sides. They're in tunnels, along with the gas and water pipes with easy access through... manhole covers, uniquely decorated for each location. A win-win situation all around.

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Was talking in case of an earthquake, etc of course. ;)

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Ever heard of electrical wires being blown down during a Typhoon? (Japan is also very famous for typhoons...) People have been electrocuted that way and, according to the workmen recently working on the numerous overhead cables all around this area : "Working on these things is really dangerous! It would be much safer underground"

As for the manholes, there are 8 of them over a distance of about 10 metres right near our house - NO pictures though!

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@javnation "Yes, up until the 17th Centaury. Since then it is square and ugly and utilitarian. There is no beauty in modern Japan, just as there is no soul. Visit Europe and adjust your reference."

Right, only you WILL be able to see JUST the manholes as you MUST watch where you step: an assortment of dogshit, vomit, chewing gum, and broken glass etc. is never too far.

The Japanese manhole covers are interesting jewels. I also have taken some photos of them, so apparently they do make an impression to the people who notice them.

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hrd1231 - Gas and water pipes also break during moderate tremors, just ask any engineer and they'll confirm it. You've got tons of soil and rock moving and no matter how sturdy your pipe is it's got absolutely zero chance of making it through without some damage. Taiko666 hit the nail on the head though when he talked about the level of moisture in the soil. Most of Japan's water is very close to the surface. Just look at most buildings and you'll see very heavy foundations for precisely that reason, to insulate the building from rising damp.

Now combine water + broken electric cables and you end up with a localised death trap (because an effect similar to a Faraday cage the current doesn't dissipate over a large area, but rather concentrates within a small area). There's little or no warning that the area you're about to step on is highly charged. A fallen cable can be seen and identified.

And gas and water leaks aren't as dangerous for precisely the same reason. Natural gas is dissipated and absorbed by the high water-table making gas leaks less dangerous than in most countries, although in many places in Japan they still use gas tanks rather than gas lines because the risk of an explosion is still too high. Water leaks don't add much to the generally high level of moisture in the water and the plentiful supply of water in Japan doesn't make it a big issue and repairs are ongoing (in case you having noticed this is a large reason why the Japanese municipalities are continually digging holes and replacing lengths of piping).

Sorry for the long explanation, but it is technical and I've tried to make it as simple as possible.

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So why, then, Frungy, given Japan's uniquely moist soil do they manage to bury cables in some locations?

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Well done Remo.Looking forward to getting a copy of this

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Yeah Frungy, I'm going with the theory that somewhere there is a politician getting a kickback on every pole. Soil is no more moist here than in many countries with underground wiring. I still like the manhole covers.

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@ Zenny11

Lots of those hidden gems around, like memorial plagues

Oh those joyous memories of bygone plagues! ;)

I know it was a typing error, but funny nevertheless!

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