Committee on Environment, Geography and Urbanization

Division of Social Sciences, The University of Chicago

Issue 7 | Spring 2024

Look What I Found: At the Tripoint

Day had slipped into evening, then to night, but the beige 80s Seiko air conditioner was still on in my beige 80s room, spewing mildew and odd noises just as much as it did cool air. Such is life in summer in Ōsaka, where you can spend two months without experiencing an outside temperature below 80 Fahrenheit or a humidity below 60%. If you have AC, even malodorous, cacophonous AC, you take it. Planned obsolescence wasn’t in the design process for Japanese appliances of that era, so my AC, even as it senesced, never stopped working outright. But the accumulations of dust and must in its gears were taking a toll on it. Lucky as I was to be there, Japan had been taking a toll on me, too. I had come to Japan for this study abroad program with a vague yet acute desire to know more about the country, about the city of Ōsaka, about my heritage, about myself. I wanted to explore, see the real Japan, meaningless as real might be. But here I was three precious weeks in, holed up and hunched over in my pungent box as I endured the tedium of my summer RAship. I was friendly with everyone, but my Japanese, the Japanese I had pledged the next two months to, wasn’t quite fluent enough to accomplish the already-difficult task of sharing emotions and building true friendships. The 14 hours separating Ōsaka and Chicago, combined with the refusal of my phone to accept an international SIM card, didn’t make talking to friends any easier.

As I worked, shouts, guffaws, and drinking chants reverberated from downstairs, but I didn’t feel like joining them. I shared my house, nicknamed Vivian, nominally with seven people (four Americans, three Japanese), although the mean occupancy had to be north of fifteen. Of all the houses in the study abroad program, ours was the only one with a common room. The space was not much wider than a corridor, with a narrow wooden table to match, but it was enough to make Vivian the party house. Nearly every night, people crowded around that table for drinking parties that left half-empty bottles of soju, Strong Zero, and whiskey for the next morning. The parties were fun when I went, but tonight was an introverted kind of night. So, with my room and the common room ruled out, I resolved to liberate myself and walk somewhere, anywhere other than this. I clocked out of work, stuffed the necessities into my pockets, and started down the stairs and toward my own exploration of this city. With an ittekima~su, I located my off-brand Jordans from the party’s haphazard heap of reeking sneakers, slipped them on, and escaped into the still-warm air.

What I was looking for on the walk, vaguely, was a thing keeping me anchored in the environment, a signpost of excitement. A thing telling me I belonged. In Chicago, that thing had been the friends and acquaintances I would walk past and wave at. Across the Pacific Ocean in Ōsaka, I had no such luxury. I started down a pathway on a spit along the Ai River, one of the myriad waterways that snake through the reclaimed land Ōsaka rests on. A jolly-looking man in a bright orange shirt jogged past me. Was running going to be my new thing? I took a hop, a skip, but it didn’t feel right. I decided against it. A couple minutes later, I came across a gigantic practice facility for baseball and golf, fenced in by a green mesh netting stretching up to the empyrean. High schoolers in nylon jerseys thwacked balls from the three decks of the structure, leaving a carpeting of baseballs and golf balls on the field beneath them. I took some artsy-fartsy photos of the field—would photography be my new passion? But no, that’s cliché, everyone thinks they’re a great photographer.

So I continued on walking, in search of a way that Ōsaka and I could feel familiar to each other, increasingly doubting that it would pop out of the woodwork. I looked down, not at my phone, or really anything in particular. And there it was. A disc of metal, about one foot in diameter, implanted into the surrounding asphalt. It was painted white, with five little pink cherry blossoms and thirteen scattered polka dots, around some sort of sideways umbrella in the middle. The extrusion on the bottom read shikiriben—gate valve, a term I had not yet learned, even in English. It initially stood out to me because of the pink flowers and the stark white paint, representations of delicacy above the harsh asphalt. But the reason I latched onto it was entirely different, beyond aesthetics, and harder to explain.

After I returned from Japan, I would interview manhole cover enthusiasts across the world to apprehend our attraction to them. Chicago Sun-Times columnist and author Neil Steinberg found the same unexpected hobbyistic passion while walking around Chicago. The ubiquitous “Neenah” label on the city’s manhole covers led him up to Wisconsin and the foundry of the same name.

When asked to psychologize his idiosyncratic interest in manholes, he put forth that they are “docile beasts” that “rarely complain,” a manifestation of Pablo Neruda’s poem “An Ode to Common Things.” Manhole covers worldwide are meant to be virtually indestructible as they dutifully separate the city’s street-level face from its expansive digestive tract. They often last for upwards of 50 years, even as they endure constant pummeling from vehicles that drive over them. A manhole cover, in fact, took the full force of an atomic bomb
as it was blasted skyward in an underground Cold War nuclear test. At the risk of sounding trite, manhole covers are models of consistency in a world of flux. But hardiness alone fails to explain why Steinberg christened Japan as the world’s “Manhole Mecca.” Japan’s manhole covers are no more durable than any other nation’s. I would have to continue along my unintentional pilgrimage to understand my fixation.

And so I did. Manhole covers would be my thing, the mundane objects in my environment that I could access at any time, that comforted and encouraged me. Thing in mind and iPhone in hand for photographic commemoration, I zigzagged from sidewalk to sidewalk across the sleepy weeknight satellite community of Settsu. Each as-yet-undiscovered design was a scintilla of thrill. Bubbles effervescing out from a central diamond, Escherian cobweb-like tessellations, interlocking T’s, what looked like an aerial view of a corn maze—the number of ways to fill a circle were endless, and I was rabid. But for all my rabidity, this was to be no erratic enterprise: I needed to set some standards for photographic quality. One was a commitment to form: my pictures were to be taken from straight overhead so as not to be distorted. The other was a commitment to the sanctity of the manhole cover in its natural habitat: neither I nor my shadow could be visible. In a nighttime world transiently illuminated by passing vehicle headlights and flickering street lamps, adhering to these two protocols proved a challenge. I would locate my shadow(s), then arc over the manhole cover, one arm outstretched as to just miss the shadow my body cast. My awkward contortions garnered confused looks from passersby. As I straddled a new cover beneath a highway interchange, a silver sedan rolled down its window and the driver asked what I was doing. “Don’na koto wo shiteru no?” Literally, “What sort of thing are you doing?,” though translated through the indirect politeness of Japanese sociolinguistics, it was more of a “Get out of the street, you lunatic!” But I took the question on its face. “Manhōru futa ni muchū ni natta no yo!” “I’ve become obsessed with manhole covers!”

But soon, the manhole covers started repeating. At the beginning, nearly every cover I saw bore a design I hadn’t seen before. Now, only around 10% did. I’d scurry over to a manhole down the street, but walk away disheartened and unsure of my quest’s longevity after its cover was yet another repeat. And that aquiline sideways umbrella design from the first cover kept popping up. In search of something new, I crossed Torikaibashi, a multimodal arch bridge spanning the yawning Yodo River. Immediately, I started seeing new designs, these ones instead with an emblem resembling a compass rose in the center.

It occurred to me that, on crossing the bridge, I’d passed from Settsu into Moriguchi, another city with its own unique set of manhole covers. A strategy began to come into view: I would travel to as many cities as I could and walk through them, eyes peeled for manhole designs. Confluences of municipal boundaries would be the most fertile grounds. Just as the Japanese Archipelago itself emerged at the tripoint of the Okhotsk, Philippine, and Eurasian Plates, an archipelago of manhole cover designs emerged at the tripoint of Settsu, Moriguchi, and Ōsaka. A pit stop at 7/11 for a melonpan and a rehydrating concoction called Salty Litchi Drink set me back 250 yen but sent me hurtling forward toward two more cities’ worth of manhole covers. I got to my sharehouse back in Ōsaka at 1:30 after 4 hours of manhole cover collection. The boisterous crowd around the narrow wooden table had cleared out, leaving only the mostly-chugged Strong Zero cans, persistent as ever, to stand watch. My calves lamented the lactic acid buildup and demanded ibuprofen; having carried to me 74 unique manhole covers and three cities, they deserved a break. But my cheek muscles, stretching my grin from ear to ear, received no such respite.


A week removed from my initial trek, after a relentlessly frustrating day of class where I felt just as likely as a cow to produce a fluent Japanese sentence, I decided it was time for another manhole trip. I pulled up a map of the cities in the Ōsaka region, and then a transit map of the area, to find another city tripoint that I could get to by train without much hassle. Scan, scroll, squint… Ibaraki, Suita, and Toyonaka it would be. My route took me to the Banpaku Kinen Kōen in Suita, the 240-acre park unveiled for the 1970 World’s Fair and a testament to the country’s postwar prosperity. The monorail glided to halt in plain view of the park’s omniscient Tower of the Sun, the stony eyes of its baby face on its chest just as disconcerting as the luminescent eyes of its concave bird face in the typical location of a face. But there was beauty in it, or at least intrigue, and Suita’s designers seemed to think so as well. At the base of the stairs to exit the station, the Tower’s twin faces glared up from the ground, encircled by floral rings and engraved in one of the city’s primary manhole cover designs.

Both the statue and its iron-forged imitation entered into the annals of my camera roll. I ambled on through the park and toward Toyonaka, eyes darting about for evidence of any undiscovered species of cover. At the border of Suita and Toyonaka was a white mall with teal triangular windows tiling its walls, J-pop and the scent of takoyaki wafting from its plaza in a summer festival. It wouldn’t help my manhole cover count, but I was hot and hungry and fried octopus balls sounded like the antidote. I bought my takoyaki and went to sit down, but a weary graying man in an untucked suit was approaching what I thought was my seat. I gestured that he take the seat, but he did the same. “No, I insist.” “No, you go.” Our courtesies back and forth reached absurdity, and we came to the revolutionary compromise that two strangers might occupy the same bench. And we talked. Awkwardly at first, thanks to my imperfect Japanese, but soon he started opening up about his name (Kazuya), his civil engineering career, his family, his misgivings about a Japanese economic system that no longer ensured a hard worker a life of prosperity. Two hours, three live vocalists, and twelve takoyaki later, as the vendors broke down their E-Z Ups, we exchanged Facebook accounts and parted ways. The jovial, waving alligator on one of Toyonaka’s manhole covers, the mascot of the city, reminded me of Kazuya, my new friend. The frustration of the morning had washed away, and I was confident that I could hold my own in Japanese. I had followed the breadcrumbs of manholes and found not just familiar signposts in space, but also a newfound immersion within Ōsakan society, a budding little community.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the manhole cover community was far larger than the people, like Kazuya, who I met along the way. One person I interviewed was Sū, who had her manhole cover epiphany when she saw one in a rose garden, and became “totally hooked” on both their aesthetic value and “the local history and specialties of the place” that the manhole covers reveal. She posted pictures of local designs to her website, and soon other enthusiasts started latching on, asking if they could post their own. That website is now Nippon Manhōru Futa Gakkai, an online forum with a community of over 500 active contributors. Their collective project, a catalog of uncountably many designs, displays the depth and breadth of artistic expression Sū and I had been so awestruck by. To be sure, Japan had boring manhole covers that didn’t feature much more than a crosshatched design with the name of the foundry across the bottom. But more often than not, municipalities displayed local pride with mind-blowing designs, sometimes hand-painted in vivid color if you got lucky enough. Kōbe, a star in the manhole world, produced kitschy designs with slogans aimed at English-speaking tourists. “Welcome to KOBE!” “LOVE KOBE.” “All you need is KOBE.” Corporations, too, got in on the action: Pokemon scattered hundreds of Pokelids across their canonical hometowns in Japan. It was nothing like I’d seen anywhere in the US, and it seemed to point toward a specific Japanese ethic toward public beauty.

And yet Japan’s manhole cover culture, from its genesis, has never been public beauty for the sake of public beauty. In the 1980s, enabled by favorable US monetary policy, Japan’s economy was growing to astronomical levels in a postwar economic miracle. With this new monetary supply, local representatives retained popularity by “pork- barreling”: sponsoring large, sometimes unnecessary public works projects that Japan’s excess money could pay for. One of these public works projects was an upgrade of urban sewer systems. If their constituents could visibly appreciate the new sewers, politicians’ thinking went, they would maintain popularity. And so the decorative manhole cover was born, a covert advertising campaign for the political status quo, smiling up at commuters across the country. I was a willing consumer.

As the weeks progressed, my bonds with my classmates and housemates strengthened, but my manhole cover obsession, originally an outlet for restless loneliness, showed no signs of waning. Anyone who signed up to be my friend was also signing up for a dump of the most outstanding designs from my most recent excursion. One weekend trip took me to the distant quad-point (!) of Yao, Fujiidera, Habikino, and Matsubara. There, the dense apartment complexes of outer-ring Ōsaka faded to a patchwork of consumer-goods factories, two-story single-family units with blue roofs, irrigation ponds for grain fields, and the remains of massive, ancient, keyhole-shaped tombs known as kofun. At midday, with the sun’s rays beating directly down from a cloudless, 95-degree sky, not even the 51-story Ōsaka Bay Tower could have shaded a pedestrian, but the relative flatness of the built environment didn’t help. I would’ve gladly accepted the water bursting from the hose on the Fujiidera Fire Department manhole cover. Searching for manhole covers on the unshaded bike path along the channelized Yamato River, I was sweating so heavily that a ring of salt was forming on my shirt. My craving for a thirst-quenching Salty Litchi Drink overcame me, and I interrupted my manhole cover quest to find a vending machine on the streets of Yao.

As I walked through Yao, I noticed that the city’s primary design featured a figure working at a spinning wheel, celebrating its history of manufacturing and workmanship. The landscape of the industrial district around me certainly confirmed that, if on a more corporate scale. But amongst the off-white slabs that characterized the area, a spiky mint green ball was perched atop a sharp orange building. “Konpeitou Kingdom・コンペ イトウ王国” its awning read in bubbly rainbow lettering. “見て・聞いて・作れる体験型空間.” Curious about konpeitō, the star-shaped clumps of hard sugar I saw at the Mitsuwa Japanese supermarket as a kid, and desperate for air conditioning, I stepped through the Kingdom’s glass double doors. Muzak played at a small gift shop, but it was drowned out by the whirr of machines upstairs. As I idly checked out the displays, the director of the factory, a stout man in his 40s, hustled down a stairwell. He introduced himself as Keiichi and dove into a historical tour. By his account, a Portuguese missionary had presented konpeitō to the great daimyo Oda Nobunaga as a delicacy. Hooked, Nobunaga subsequently bankrupted himself ordering shipments of the expensive sweets. Keiichi was proud to report that the process to create them, once requiring ten days of delicate hand-mixing, now only took ten hours in his rotating industrial drums. He joyfully switched on an oversized replica
of this groundbreaking drum. Multicolored inflatable plastic balls, meant to imitate konpeitō, popcorned unpredictably against its circular wall. Once he finished his tour, I picked up two containers of konpeitō—one for myself, one as a souvenir—and set them on the checkout counter.

Behind the register, Keiichi furrowed his brow, less in judgmental nativism than curious bemusement. “Foreigners don’t come around Yao much, huh?” Yeah, why was I there? On a micro scale, my path resembled that of the konpeitō caroming around the drums: my manhole cover quest guided me toward whichever odd locations some construction worker had placed them long ago. In the randomness, however, meaning was taking shape. Those familiar signposts in my environment were coalescing into a veritable complex of cultural comfort. Never could I be Japanese Japanese—my ancestors’ birthplaces were more of a curiosity than a point of shared identity to the locals I’d met. After all, the modern Japan I was scouring for manhole covers bore little resemblance to its late-19th-century form. But reversing generations of language assimilation had to count for something, and the manholes portaled me into an immersive snapshot of modern Japanese culture. In doing so, they let me start to interrogate the questions of identity I’d been chasing after when I initially applied for a grant to come to Japan. The country began to feel more familiar and tangible, and I wanted to go toevery city, locate every manhole cover, and meet every person. “That’ll be 520 yen,” Keiichi announced.

Shoot, yes, I had been buying konpeitō. I rummaged through my purse, presented the sufficient coinage, and headed for the fellow quad-point city of Habikino and whatever lay beyond it.

But time came, as it always does, for another chapter. August sixth, the date of my departure from Ōsaka, had arrived. My Vivian housemates and I took a break from squeezing last-minute items into our suitcases for a group cry-hug session. One by one, Charlie left, James left, Yūki left, Ayana left, Emily left, Kyle left, Mona left. I lugged my duffel bag and backpack to a cafe and wallowed in all the bucket-list items I hadn’t completed and people I would probably never see again. I was slouched over on the bakelite table when I got a Line call from Yōsuke, a Vivian quasi-resident, who justified his near-constant presence in the house with his bear hugs and his profoundly successful fulfillment of the burnout-older-brother niche. “You free?” “Yeah, why?” “Wanna go on an adventure?” I begrudgingly perked myself up: in my code of ethics, if not my present state of mind, there was always time for an adventure. Especially if I could get a new manhole cover out of it. He picked me up and drove us to his favorite spot in Ōsaka prefecture, Saito Rainbow Park in Minoh. We alternated American and Japanese songs on aux as we sipped Flamin’ Hot Dodecamine, a satanic energy drink that he unveiled with his standard toothy grin. If the energy drink didn’t wake me up, his activity of choice at Rainbow Park sure did: a rusty, 20-foot tall, perfectly vertical slide so incongruous with US child safety regulations that it inspired a “You said I won’t die?” before my virgin freefall. Yōsuke, always wise, said it mimicked a waterfall, the same one depicted on the Minoh manhole cover.

I separated from the steel bar, slid, screamed, screeched, stopped, smiled. Exhilarated and indefatigable, we made like Sisyphus’ boulder and plummeted down just to climb back up again and again. But eventually Yōsuke had to start driving back home. He did me a parting favor, though, and dropped me off at the tripoint of Ikeda, Minoh, and Toyonaka for one last manhole cover excursion. We bear-hugged sayōnara, and I was alone again, but less lonely than I had ever been.

Ikeda, Minoh, and Toyonaka were all commuter towns in the shadow of Ōsaka’s northern tufted peaks, inhabited by the highly educated yuppies and tenured company workers who earned enough to live there. Their tripoint was at a correspondingly ritzy mall around Ishibashi Handai-Mae Station, replete with Western-style cafés and trendy clothing stores. In more working-class parts of Ōsaka prefecture, residents made their own green space by upturning reused water bottles to nourish rows of potted plants in their alleyways.

Here, the green space here was planned, public, plentiful, parkified. The four 80th- anniversary limited-edition Ikeda municipal manhole covers along the main thoroughfare of the mall reflected the environmental bounty that stemmed from corporate wealth. Nissin Chikin Ramen, Hankyū Railway, and Itami Airport, all of which had brought business to the city, featured prominently its depiction.

The four designs were identically engraved with a scene of Ikeda but each shaded the city according to a different season.26 Spring brought cherry blossoms; summer, fireworks; autumn, deciduous leaves; winter, snow and ice.

I made my way past the rows of retail establishments, impulsively in and out of a snack shop, again past the rows of retail establishments, and to the forested campus of Ōsaka University-Toyonaka, where I hoped to find campus-specific manhole covers. The students had returned home for summer vacation, leaving behind posters for martial arts clubs, inscrutable modernist sculptures, and furloughed student stores. And, of course, in their eternal dependability and ubiquity, manhole covers. Satisfied after two rounds of campus, my total collection up to 534 unique covers for the summer, I found a placid lake encircled by a cobblestone amphitheater.

I sat on its steps and watched as Ōsaka slowly revolved away from the sun, scattering its tangent rays into oranges and reds and purples. I thought about Yōsuke, Keiichi, and Kazuya, about Vivian, about my great-great-grandparents who chose to journey from Japan to America, only to be interned for their Japaneseness and shamed out of generational language retention in the new country, about what they would think of my new hobby of staring down at the ground, about what they would think of me being in Japan, about what I thought of myself being here, in this moment, in this country, if only for a couple more hours.

Good, I thought. I’ve made it. The wind whooshed by, my heart rate slowed down, and, for the first time in a long time, the heat subsided.