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As Remo Camerota was photographing his book ‘Graffiti Japan’ he came across various drain designs in different prefectures. Camerota started documenting these manholes and eventually collected enough to get a book together. “I noticed there was an otaku culture based around these manhole covers, as well as a huge internet following. People actually have website museums dedicated to the pursuit of drainspotting! There is no other book on the subject so I wanted to show the rest of the world the kind of artistic design going on here.” So while it’s not the oddest fetish in Japan, there are people who travel the length of the country enticed by the prospect of a compellingly designed manhole.

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In Japan, modern sewer systems began appearing during the late 19th century, and foreign engineers introduced the Japanese to modern, underground sewer systems with above ground access points. At that time manhole covers had similar geometric designs to those used in other countries. In the 1980s, one bureaucrat devised a way to make these mostly invisible systems aesthetically appreciated aboveground, and the customised manhole cover was invented.

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Asked which is his favourite manhole, the photographer replies, “The one I found in Shiga. I was arguing with my partner because I took a wrong turn, and low and behold, I found my favourite manhole cover lying there in the wrong street. We wouldn’t have found it if we went the correct way.” The manhole was a fireman and his bio suit. “How apocalyptic, and it was just there on the side of the road,” he exclaims. The reason it was Camerota’s favourite is because it reminds him of sci fi movies, anime and manga, which he’s a big fan and creator of himself.

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Even though Japanese custom manhole covers cost more than generic ones, nearly 95% of the 1,780 municipalities in Japan sport their very own specially designed manhole covers. Designs range from images that evoke a region’s cultural identity – flora, fauna, landmarks and local festivals – even fanciful images dreamed up by school children. In Kyoto, a turtle adorns the city’s manhole covers signifying wisdom and longevity.

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So what can other countries learn from this art? Camerota replies, “Attention to detail and unusual art practice are just some of the things they can learn. What this kind of thing shows is that no matter how small or insignificant the item, they can still make it perfect. Designing a manhole cover for each prefecture means there are over 2500 throughout Japan. Slowly but surely this insignificant item is getting its own cult otaku following meaning people are looking at Japan as modern leaders in landscape design and attracting tourists in a bizarre way. Even if they are maniacs!”

This is a new post by David Report contributor Kristina Dryza.

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