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…
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.