Japan's sewerage industry has found a way to clean up its dirty and smelly image: elaborately designed and colourful manhole covers with 12,000 local varieties nationwide -- including, of course, a Hello Kitty design.
Appealing to a Japanese love of detail and "kawaii" ("cute"), bespoke manhole covers adorn the streets of 1,700 towns, cities and villages across Japan and have spawned a collection craze among so-called "manholers."
The designs represent an instant guide to a place as they feature its history, folklore, or speciality goods: a castle design for an ancient town, a bay bridge for a port and Mt Fuji for a city at the foot of Japan's iconic mountain.
As for Tama City, located in the western sprawl of greater Tokyo, locals are pinning their hopes on a more modern Japanese icon -- Hello Kitty -- to attract tourists, alongside the town's theme park showcasing much-loved children's character from the Sanrio company.
For others, the interest lies more in "cover bonsai", plants growing on soil accumulated on and around covers.
More than 3,000 people attended a "manhole summit" in western Japan in November.
Given their size, the covers cannot easily be collected in the same way people hoard stamps and coins.
But to satisfy collectors' desire, the private-public GKP network designed to promote awareness on the importance of sewerage in society, has released 1.4 million cards of 293 different covers.
The cards are free but they can only be obtained through local offices, thus working as a tourist magnet.
They are numbered in chronological order and come with the manhole's exact GPS information for the convenience of manholers.
And when a real cover does become available, demand is brisk.
The eastern city of Maebashi held a highly competitive lottery in October as its offer to sell 10 used manhole covers -- 40 kilogrammes of iron -- at 3,000 yen ($28) each was swamped with more than 190 bids.
The history of decorating manhole covers in Japan dates back 40 years to a bid to improve the image of the sewerage system.
Cover designs must have the same friction level no matter which direction humans or cars come from so that people do not slip over them.
This need for friction resulted in placing extra streaks of clouds, sea waves or tiny stars in the background, giving birth to "condensed designs.
Overall, there are some 15 million manholes in Japan, of which only a fraction have colourful designed covers, carefully hand-painted.
A plain cover costs some $600 but a colourful, designed one can be double that depending on the number of colours used and the level of detail used.
The craze has since spread online with abundant information on where to find the best manholes via the hashtag #manhotalk, reports AFP..