Custom Manhole Covers

Background: On the grey asphalt brightly coloured manhole covers jump out at you. Some contain characters or samurai from the sewers that are ready to attack you. Does no one else notice them? Are they an enchanted charm to keep evil subterranean “yokai” (traditional ghouls/spirits) at bay?

After researching this topic and having already amassed a giant photo collection of manhole covers, I’ve decided that Japan is indeed unique in decoration obsession. There is no real benefit as to why such designs are necessary. According to the Japan Times it only costs an extra fraction to stamp out a city’s custom design than to use a generic design. Apparently it adds charm and pride to a city to have it’s own manhole designs but 9/10 of the people I’ve asked have never really paid attention to manhole covers at all!

In hobby-obsessed Japan, there is always a group of extremists who tend to take things to the next level. If you can believe Tom Cruise’s statement in the movie, ‘The Last Samurai’, that Japanese people are 'utterly devoted’ to perfection, this proves that that devotion to a single task has gone slightly overboard. Nonetheless, after a while I have grown quite fond of seeing such uniqueness and it has in turn, turned me into a manhole lover. Sounds kind of weird when said like that…


Mother Chariots (Mama Chari)

What is it?
Mama Chari, the backbone of any middle class Japanese housewife’s plethora of tools and possessions. Although the definition basically means a relatively unisex bicycle with a basket, I will focus on the extreme case, the decked out Mamamobiles.

As seen in the above pictures, a Mamamobile is the batmobile of bicycles. 
- Multipurpose hard plastic baskets (for storage of foodstuffs and offspring)
- Child seat mounted on rear wheel
- Fixed gear system
- Bell
- Front lighting system powered by front wheel friction
- Front and Rear brake system
- Splash protector
- Seat suspension system (for all the bumps going on sidewalks)
- *Optional electric propulsion system available
- *Optional leather hand covers available

As many urbanite families live very close to train stations or super markets, the need for a heavy duty, all-serving bicycle was born. Most urban families live within a 1km radius of a super market and it is common for housewives to make a trip frequently or even daily to choose the freshest produce and seafood. Owning a car is extremely expensive in Japan and honestly not required in downtown areas. The Japanese love to kill multiple birds with one stone and have fit not one, but two kids on the bicycle (and in some cases dogs and groceries as well).

I’m surprised that Japan, being such a safety obsessed country would allow the existence of Mamamobiles that put the lives of 3 people at risk. In addition there are no helmet laws so if any accident were to happen we can expect one or both children to be seriously injured if the bicycle falls.
The good news is that such accidents are rare. In addition, the female operators of this vehicle are extremely well-trained and talented. I’ve seen them navigate a crowded sidewalk at speeds that I wouldn’t dare on a road bike with impunity and ease. Japanese moms are definitely superheroes worth of the Mamamobile. 

* Bottom Photo: From Japan Talk

Mori Shio (Piled up Salt)

Background: I always pass by this company’s door everyday. One time while pushing my bike to the office I nearly knocked over one of these.

What is it?
A superstitious/religious ritual/charm to protect and purify an establishment. Mostly traditional companies who follow Shinto practices place this in front of the door. It can also function as a form of advertising to show a passerby that the owner has paid great attention to the condition and spiritual well-being of their space. Also seen in front of many stores in red light districts as a superstitious belief that it will bring good fortune and eager clientele. Think of it as Japanese Feng Shui.

The story goes that the Chinese emperor, aka world’s biggest pimp, had thousands of the most beautiful women selected from across the empire (according to Chow Yun Fat in the movie, Anna and the King, 2000 women for the Qing emperor) and confined to his private concubine palace. That being said, he could literally sleep with a different woman every night and take over 5 years to finish. Of course that’s not the case and he had a handful of favourites so basically most of the other concubines may have possibly ever only slept with him once in their lifetimes. And for some unfortunate ones, never. Now Chinese women, being the manipulative and cunning creatures they are, just won’t just blindly sit idly and wither away. To tour his concubine realm the emperor went by oxcart or horse depending on varying sources. Let’s just say horse because it seems cooler. So one concubine we shall name Pei Pei who was probably from an common agrarian background and not of royal blood was smart enough to know that horses like salt so she placed a bowl of salt in front of her chamber’s doors. As the emperor had the very difficult task of deciding which woman to have sex with after his evening budget meeting with the ministers, the horse lead him straight to Pei Pei’s door and lo-and-behold her expecting arms. Such a happy ending. Not if she had a son, though. Then that could become a 10 part drama series of court intrigues, political factionalism and assassination starring Zhang Ziyi and Jackie Chan and maybe Chris Rock.

Digression. My apologies.
During the Heian period of Japan, everything Chinese was considered chic and cool. Funny how the tables have turned. The former capital of Nara was built to mimic the Tang dynasty capital of Chang An. Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, Chinese architecture, Chinese political structure, Chinese philosophy, Chinese writing, Chinese science, Chinese culinary arts, Chinese books were gobbled up by the intellectuals. Pretty much the hippest crowd, the young scholar class of intellectuals who would gather in tea houses and recite Chinese poetry under the moonlight those days, were the drunken Ginza bankers throwing their money around Roppongi’s sleazy clubs nowadays.

Somehow the Mori Shio tradition has survived the last two thousand or so years so next time you are about to knock over the immaculately Mt. Fuji-shaped salt at the base of a door, appreciate Concubine Pei Pei’s manipulative strategy that bagged her an emperor.


Cute Character Construction Barricades in Japan

I ride my road bike on the #2 highway everyday and the section around the Hanshin Sannomiya Station has been under construction since the dawn of time. Now has an army of alien frogs come to earth to relieve us from the constant, never-ending army of road workers? According to the top picture (the one with the frog eating the puny human), the answer may be YES!

It seems one company started to make character barricades in 2006 to replace the traditional cone and ‘A’ stand barricades. It soon took off, and as in Japan, cute sells so now many construction sites now sport their own cute armies.

According to Kotaku.com a couple theories exist:
1) Reduce Road Rage
2) Make Work Sites more 'Appealing’

My theories:
3) Make lots of money for a plastic company and pitch it to local city governments to allow subsidies on this product to improve 'safety’ of the general public.
4) Distract and baffle commuters enough to forget that the #2 highway in the proximity of the Hanshin Sannomiya Station has been under construction for the last 'n’ number of years.

Is this needed? No.
Is it cute? Yes.
Has a topic in Japan been magnified today? Probably.


PET Bottles

Background: Living in the Shitamachi(older/industrial parts of a city) of Kobe is always an interesting experience. From the horrified expressions of my Japanese friend’s faces when I tell them where I live to the quirky shops that sell salmon fish heads for 10 yen, I have now been accustomed and enjoying my neighborhood. One thing unique to the Shitamachi(and some suburban homes) are the endless amount of PET bottles filled with water and place somewhat strategically in between homes, gardens or wherever actually. What is up with that, Japan?


2L Polyethylene Terephthalate bottles (PET) filled with water is an urban legend version of cat deterrent. Apparently some rumour spread in the 90’s by a housewife proved affective. Supposedly the light, when refracted in water was supposed to startle the cats or at least product the cat’s reflection in the water, becoming a cheap alternative for keep out stray cats. C'mon lady?! Was she taking catnip? If one day I filled my entire garden with PET bottles (or gnomes) I’m sure any cat would be smart enough to realize this human was one crazy ***** not to be trifled with and not return the next day.

PET bottle arrangement is also just as fascinating. Here are some of my observations.

1) The Loner: Just one random PET bottle placed in front of a garden’s vegetable plant. Obviously this person is new to the PET Bottle arrangement world.

2) The Triceratops Formation: A group of PET’s arrange in circular formation around a single object such as a lamp post or tree. May or may not be fitted with connecting string to enforce structural integrity. May also be an attempted deterrent for dog pee.

3) The Water Wall:  A wall made up of PET’s stacked in a way to totally block off any passageways between homes or sewer entrances. Now honest to say this is probably the most effective method the keep cats out but still has nothing to do with the water! Just use a piece of plywood!


All and all I think this myth has been busted. It seems to be a select demographic of people who have bought into this urban legend and procreated it. The only useful examples I have found for Japanese reuse of PET bottles are as cooler box ice during summer BBQ’s or placed under standing ashtrays to put out any smoke. Those people who live in the Shitamachi neighborhoods live in close quarters to their neighbours’ pets as well as strays. They also care little about the effect of PET bottles on the look of their property. At least they don’t have to worry about giant wild boars eating their trash at night like the wealthier people do on Mount Rokko.