I often look down when I’m walking. I don’t know whether it’s a function of above average height – it’s a fair way down there for me – or whether some hidden force seems to place obstacles in my path. Either way, I prefer not to take my eyes off the ground for too long for fear that I might trip up. Or worse, step into a pile of faeces.
Up until the time when multi-focals entered my life, I could get away with dipping my eyes downwards and know that they would adjust their focus automatically. Presbyopia put an end to all that. Now I incline my head as well as my eyes in order to survive the hazards of street and footpath travel.
There is not much to recommend looking down at Sydney roads and footpaths. In fact, if you were to ask me to describe the sewer cover in the street outside my house – an object I have crossed both on foot and in the car probably more than a thousand times – I’d be hard pressed to describe its features to you, other than it is dark grey in colour. I think.
But in Japan my visual circumstances unwittingly opened up a new interest that would otherwise have gone unnoticed: the beauty of the street and footpath. Looking down suddenly took on a whole new meaning.
So what could be attractive about millions of kilometres of bitumen? Quite a bit. And this is yet another example of how Japan takes a universal concept and turns it into something special.
At home, street covers appear standard, mundane and forgettable. Their primary purpose is to hide the waste that flows beneath them. In Japan, however, they are neither standard nor mundane. And you will never forget them.
The Japanese street covers of today are a relatively new addition to the urban fabric. They were, however, a by-product of a separate, larger initiative: the desire to standardise the Japanese sewer system in the 1980’s.
The overhaul of the system was agreed to by municipalities on condition that each got its own custom designed sewer cover.
These custom designed covers became important to cities and towns because they presented an opportunity for them to turn a normally ordinary part of a town into something that could showcase local attractions, festivals, crafts, flora and fauna, even tell a story.
All of Japan’s custom sewer and associated street covers are forged in the Nagashima Foundry, the second largest in Japan. The foundry has made 6,000 different patterns and a carved wooden prototype of each design is saved in a central library.
It wasn’t until we reached Kyoto – the fourth leg of our trip – that I really started noticing the detail in the street covers. It was as if some subliminal reinforcement had been working on my consciousness and it needed a few days to take hold, to awaken my senses to the quirky art of the covers.
After that I could hardly take my eyes off the ground. Here’s why.
A street cover in Nara.
Takamatsu, famous for (the remnants of) its castle by the sea.
Matsue, another town famous for its castle and its surrounding garden.
Pagoda and blossom motif, Osaka.
Nagasaki drain cover.
The beauty of these objects tends to overshadow their primary purpose, that is, to keep a lid on waste. They have attracted the attention of numerous photographers far more competent than me and are the subject of a book by Remo Camerota, appropriately titled “Drainspotting”.
Looking down will never be the same for me again.
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