Travel & Culture

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Japanese culture and lifestyles through the eyes of NHK WORLD personalities

January 28, 2016

Watch Your Steps!

Michelle Yamamoto / Journalist, Anchor, Reporter, MC, Lecturer, Translator

Michelle Yamamoto often appears in English news broadcasts on NHK WORLD. She is a reporter for the Science View TV program and a contributor to the radio programs Easy Japanese and Friends Around the World.

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As I travel all over Japan doing reports for NHK, one thing I never forget to do is watch my footsteps! It's not that I'm prone to falling. Rather, the reason is that there's often something to see on the ground.

Japan has many striking sights--temples and natural scenery--but it also offers beauty beneath our feet. Handsomely decorated manhole covers across the country are not to be missed.

I have lived and travelled in many countries, but I have never come across a place that lavishes so much love and attention on manhole covers. Sewage systems are said to have first appeared in Mesopotamia, some 5,000 years ago. At the time the manhole covers were likely made of wood or stone. The cast iron covers that we see today came into use in the 18th century in America and Europe.

Yokohama City is said to have had Japan's first sewer cover in 1881, in the foreigner's settlement district. Nowadays, cities across Japan treat the covers as opportunities to display civic pride.

What are called "design manholes" started appearing in Japan in the 1980s, to raise awareness among taxpayers of costly sewage projects. Thanks to the original and beautiful designs presented by each municipalities, people started paying attention to their artistry, resulting in a number of books and webpages with pictures and even an association called the "Japan Society of Manhole Covers."

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It's incredible how much you can learn about cities from manhole covers. The designs feature flowers, trees, landscapes, historical events, ninja, samurai, and even anime characters! The Japan Society of Manhole Covers estimates the country has some 6,000 motifs.

In-between my science reports, I take snapshots each time I come across a cover. I haven't counted them all, but I think I've photographed more than 30 types so far. That means I still have more than 5,900 to go! So the end of my treasure hunt is still far ahead!

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If you have the chance to visit Japan, don't forget to look down!

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Michelle Yamamoto / Journalist, Anchor, Reporter, MC, Lecturer, Translator

Born in California, Michelle was raised in Scotland, Japan, France, Germany, and Hong Kong. She is fluent in French and German as well as English and Japanese. As former NHK Journalist, she has covered many world events, including international climate change conferences. Michelle often appears in English-language news broadcasts, cultural programs, and music shows on NHK WORLD TV, and on NHK WORLD RADIO JAPAN programs such as Science View, English News, Easy Japanese, and Friends Around the World. She is also a popular lecturer at universities on public speaking and global communications. Michelle has a strong interest in traditional Japanese crafts and often interviews artisans for a column about nearly forgotten Japanese traditions.

Question How long have you been with NHK?
It's been more than 10 years now. After I graduated university, I joined NHK as a journalist covering news in Japanese. I then moved on with my career and turned into an English news anchor and reporter for NHK WORLD TV and NHK WORLD RADIO JAPAN.
Question What was your original reason for coming to Japan?
I was meaning to study in Japan just for university to learn the Japanese culture so that I would have a better understanding of my heritage. I never imagined myself in being so enchanted by the country that I'd be living here as long as I am now.
Question What's your favorite scenic spot in Japan?
There are so many beautiful and scenic places around Japan that I could introduce, but my recent favorite is a festival held in November in Taketa City in Oita Prefecture in the south of Japan. The Taketa Bamboo Lantern Festival, known as "Chikuraku" is a festival where 20,000 bamboo lanterns are lit and placed throughout the pathways and various shrines and temples for three nights. The sight is truly breathtaking.
Question What's the one thing that's essential to your life in Japan?
My ability of "getting lost in Japan". I get lost very often. But this ability had taken me to the most amazing places and had gotten me to meet the most amazing people in which I would later go and do interviews with.
Question What is your favorite Japanese word? Please briefly describe what it means in English.
「山笑う」 "Yama-warau" it literary means "mountain smiling (laughing)".
It is a word used in Japanese Haiku Poems to depict the arrival of spring. It illustrates how the trees begins to bud and bloom in the mountains in spring.

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