Japan’s walking tours of manhole covers offer history at one’s feet
MANHOLE covers normally are used to stop the unwary from falling into a sewer, but some Japanese municipalities are utilising them for other purposes, such as to publicise local specialties and characters. There are even tours of manhole covers.
On September 10, one such tour was held in Mito, Japan, in which participants explored city streets by gazing at manhole covers with designs such as Mito Mitsukuni, popularly known as Mito Komon, a famous feudal lord of the Mito clan, and Mito-chan, a character that uses an image of natto, the traditional fermented soybean dish, wrapped in straw, a specialty of the city in Ibaraki Prefecture.
The tour’s participants, including families from Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefecture, also visited the Ibaraki prefectural government’s office, where about 40 kinds of local manhole covers were on display. An official at the prefectural government’s sewerage section said, “[Manhole covers] provide an opportunity for people to learn about the region and attract tourists to the city.”
Cards introducing manhole cover designs across the country have been issued twice this year by Tokyobased Gesuido Koho Platform (GKP), an organisation comprising the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry and other entities, with the aim of improving the image of sewerage systems. A total of 74 kinds of cards have been issued.
The front of the cards have a photo of a manhole cover and the latitude and longitude specifying its location, while the origin of the design is introduced on the back.
After the Okayama city government produced 2000 cards in April with a manhole cover design of Momotaro, a folk tale character from a legend related to Okayama, the cards were so popular they sold out by July. As a result, the city government issued another 4000 cards.
As many municipalities hope cards of their manhole covers will be issued, GKP plans to issue such cards for the third time in December.
Manhole covers are made with uneven surfaces to prevent pedestrians from slipping on them. According to GKP, manhole cover designs used to be mainly geometrical patterns. However, since around 1980, these designs were gradually changed to popularise the characteristics of particular regions. With the encouragement of the central government to improve the image of sewerage systems, about 12,000 kinds of locally designed manhole covers have been produced around the country.
Hideto Yamada, a member of GKP’s planning and management committee, said, “As the designs of Japan’s manhole covers are unique, they also are attracting attention overseas.”
Souvenirs associated with manhole covers are also available. Yokohama Goods 001, a general incorporated association that selects specialties of Yokohama, chose a coaster with an image of a manhole cover one-sixth its actual size as an official souvenir of the city. The coaster costs 800 yen (US$7.78).
Atsumi Matsuo, head of the association’s secretariat, said, “If water from a glass wets the coaster, the coaster evokes a wet feeling as if rain has made it damp.”
The Oji town government in Nara Prefecture is giving real manhole covers as a gift in return for furusato nozei, the so-called hometown tax payment, under which resident tax is reduced if donations are made to select municipalities by nonresident donors. Recipient municipalities also offer local specialties as gifts to donors.
Bearing a design of a clock tower, the town symbol, Oji’s manhole cover weighs about 40 kilograms (88 pounds). A coloured manhole cover is presented in return for a donation of 300,000 yen (about $2940) or more, while a plain manhole cover is offered for a donation of 200,000 yen to under 300,000 yen.
Hidetoshi Ishii, a former employee of the Tokyo metropolitan government’s Bureau of Sewerage and author of Manhole Isho ga Arawasu Nihon no Bunka to Rekishi (Manhole designs show Japan’s culture and history), published by Minerva Shobo Co, said manhole covers are similar to tourist information boards.
“In some areas, manhole covers are designed to relate local legends, as if we are reading a story,” Ishii said.
Mayuko Kono, a senior researcher at JTB Tourism Research & Consulting Co, said, “Visiting places to look at local manhole covers and visiting noted sites depicted on the covers is a good idea for getting to know the charm of these areas. They provide visitors with a great opportunity to enjoy walking around a town.” – The Japan News
A collection of Japan’s decorative manhole covers demonstrates the country’s attention to detail.