Originally published in The Hindu on March 10, 2018

The traditional way to discover Japan is to take in its shrines, gardens and museums. A less conventional method, but one with a growing number of followers, is to keep the eyes trained on the ground, and go manhole-cover spotting. In Japan, the lowly manhole is its own art form, with covers displaying intricate, occasionally painted, designs that reveal something of the unique history or cultural traditions of the cities whose sewers they adorn.

In Tokyo, the standard cover displays sakura or cherry blossom petals, while in Osaka, the country’s erstwhile commercial centre, the city castle is the dominant motif. Port cities display lighthouses and ocean scenes, fishing villages feature fish and elements of local festivals like lanterns; certain foods make an appearance too. According to the Japan Society of Manhole Covers, which maintains an online directory of designs, there are almost 6,000 artistic manhole covers across the archipelago with trees, landscapes, flowers and birds accounting for the majority.

Modern sewer systems, with above ground access points called manhoru (manholes), date back to the late 19th century in Japan. But it was in the 1980s that the kind of standard, drab manhole coverings with unremarkable geometric patterns transformed into the artistic works of today. At the time, several Japanese cities were slated for a sewage system overhaul, but these were met with public resistance to the cost and disruptions caused.

The idea that aesthetically appealing covers might make citizens more amenable to, and sensitised about, the importance of good sewage was floated by bureaucrats, and took hold. Before long, municipalities were holding design competitions and vying with each other for the most appealing images. And this being Japan, the global capital of enthusiasts for obscure passions, dedicated groups of manholers or drainspotters (the nomenclature is variable) began spending their free time tracking down unique designs, photographing them and even getting down on their knees to take ink impressions of covers.

In the ensuing decades, a slew of books detailing the covers have been published. A recent example is Manhole: Japanese Culture and History Represented by the Design, authored by retired Tokyo Metropolitan Government official Hidetoshi Isshi, who spent over 20 years cycling across 1,700 municipalities photographing manholes.

Variety of designs

Websites and social media fora for manholers are numerous and there is a sewage promotion platform (Gesuido Koho Purattofomu or GKP) that has launched a series of picture cards featuring manhole designs. These cards are available for free at local government facilities like sewage plants.

According to GKP, more than a million cards have been issued since they were first introduced in April 2016. A report in The Japan Times said a travel agency in Saitama Prefecture, near Tokyo, has developed a bus tour that allows participants to collect manhole cards. Manholers have even got an annual summit going since 2014 where they get together and discuss designs. Three thousand people attended last November.

Although it is easy to poke fun at the idea of Japan’s manhole aficionados, beautiful manhole covers have elevated what has always been considered the dirty, humiliating aspects of human living — refuse, sanitation, drainage — into artifacts of beauty, to be beheld, acknowledged, and wondered at. India’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan would do well to take note.