Photo by Akibubblet.

Sometimes, the difference between a pleasant, livable city and a stressful one comes down to the details, things you might barely even notice but that influence you almost subconsciously. Municipalities in Japan have gotten at least one of these details down pat, by putting intricate and beautiful decorations in one of the city’s most forgotten places: the lowly manhole cover.

Photo by Carlos Blanco.

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The figured and painted manhole covers started in the 1980s, as a ploy to reduce public resistance to new sewer systems. Now, nearly 95 percent of Japanese cities and towns have their own custom, individual manhole cover designs. Sidewalk covers are brightly painted, though the ones in the streets usually boast detailed images but no color.

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Photo by Jpellgen.

There’s a much bigger collection of Japanese manhole covers at Gwarlingo, plus a book called Drainspotting that anthologizes a whole bunch of them. Go look, and imagine what your city would be like if even the ground under your feet contained works of art.