Not long after we hopped off the plane in Osaka, arrived by train in Kyoto, wandered the streets in search of food markets, lunch and Temples... my eyes were very quickly drawn to the ground.
The pavements we were walking on, and the roads cars and lorries were driving over, had such amazingly decorative drain covers set into them. I had no idea of the story behind these wonderful pieces of design, but I became obsessed with spotting them in every new place we visited.
I soon learnt that Japanese manhole covers come in a variety of designs depending on their locality in Japan, utility type and the manufacturer of the manhole cover. It all started in the 1980s when Japan began modernising the sewage infrastructure in more rural areas. The expensive changes were met with resistance until one bureaucrat came up with an inspired and creative solution – give cities the opportunity to decorate their manholes and display their local pride.
How they're made
Artist Remo Camerota wrote a book about Drainspotting and explains how the drain covers are made. The Nagashima Foundry, which is the second largest in the country, makes about 400 manhole covers a day. The foundry has made over 6,000 different patterns in all. Nagashima, the president of the Nagashima Foundry, explains the process in Drainspotting:
“We carve the design on a piece of wood. Next we put sand on the wood pattern and make a negative sand pattern; then we pour melted iron into the pattern, clear up the iron, blast and paint the cover black. When we have colored ones they are done by hand and painted with a thick tree resin, colored from pigment. The tree resin sets rock hard and lasts much longer than paint.”