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Japan sewers clean up their act with manhole art

January 15, 2018

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TOKYO: This combo of photos shows designed manhole covers in Kawaguchi, 
Saitama prefecture.—AFP
TOKYO: This combo of photos shows designed manhole covers in Kawaguchi, Saitama prefecture.—AFP

TOKYO: Japan’s sewerage industry has found a way to clean up its dirty and smelly image: elaborately designed and colourful manhole covers with 12,000 local varieties nationwide — including, of course, a Hello Kitty design.

Appealing to a Japanese love of detail and “kawaii” (“cute”), bespoke manhole covers adorn the streets of 1,700 towns, cities and villages across Japan and have spawned a collection craze among so-called “manholers.” The designs represent an instant guide to a place as they feature its history, folklore, or speciality goods: a castle design for an ancient town, a bay bridge for a port and Mt Fuji for a city at the foot of Japan’s iconic mountain.

As for Tama City, located in the western sprawl of greater Tokyo, locals are pinning their hopes on a more modern Japanese icon — Hello Kitty — to attract tourists, alongside the town’s theme park showcasing much-loved children’s character from the Sanrio company.

“We’d be happy if people come and take some time for a stroll in our town while looking for the Hello Kitty manholes,” said Mikio Narashima, who heads the city’s sewage system division, after the city installed the first of the 10 designed covers.

Veteran spotter Shoji Morimoto said his passion for covers was fuelled after noticing that the central city of Fukui sported two phoenixes on its manholes.

He later learned the imaginary birds were a symbol of the town’s rise from a 1945 devastating US air raid and a deadly earthquake three years later.

“I sometimes do research on why the town has that particular design. I’m impressed whenever I find out it represents the town’s history and culture,” said Morimoto, who coined the word “manholer” for like-minded people.

Published in Dawn, January 15th, 2018

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