Searching for a unique – and more importantly, free – memento to collect on your trip to Japan? Look no further than the street! Streets in Japan are bustling with sights and sounds vying for your attention, so it can be easy to miss some of the smaller details at ground level. However, for many visiting and living in Japan, snapping pictures of Japan’s decorative manhole covers has become a great way to appreciate the little things whilst marking one’s travels.
With over 12,000 unique designs all around Japan, manhole covers have become works of art in their own right. Using these metal canvases, each region has the chance to show off its local mascots, goods, landmarks, festivals, legends, and more. In Hokkaido’s capital city of Sapporo, manhole covers are adorned with images of their famous clock tower. Meanwhile, in Nara, they are decorated with the area’s famed bowing deer. Frequently, regions use manhole covers to highlight their beloved landmarks, such as Okinawa’s versions showcasing the iconic Shuri Castle grounds.
Japan hasn’t always had such beautiful utilities. Support for decorative manhole covers first came about in the 1980s as part of a plan to get citizens on board with paying higher taxes to allow for the improvement of sewer systems in rural areas. Supposedly, the idea came to fruition in 1977 when the city of Naha in Okinawa debuted a cover featuring circles of smiling fish, meant to symbolize the happiness that accompanied the clean water provided by the sewer system project. Soon after, the idea of using art to gain positive attention for projects took off, and designer manholes began to appear across the country.
Today, designer manhole covers can be found all around the country, often painted in bright colors to catch attention. Baseball stadiums have adopted versions sporting their favorite team mascots. Theme parks have also jumped on board, with Sanrio Puroland displaying the cutest Hello Kitty scenes on the manholes throughout the park. Recently, Pokémon also joined the trend, putting their characters on covers at popular locations across the country.
What’s more, the lids are not merely aesthetically pleasing – they can also serve safety functions. Special designs are used by fire stations to indicate the presence of underground fire hydrants. Some cities even install LED lights in lids to illuminate streets at night.
No matter the design, these manhole covers have taken off with quite the following. Avid admirers of the art call themselves “manholers” or “drain spotters” and share their finds online. Some fans have even created catalogs of the art on websites or gone so far as to reproduce the images on apparel. Seeing the love for manhole cover art grow, many towns and cities have begun printing collectible “manhole cards” which feature not only the art but the location of the manhole covers as well as information about the design. These cards are often available for free at local water and sewage departments or tourism offices.
The next time you’re in Japan, don’t forget to look down every once in a while to appreciate the art underfoot. Happy hunting!
About the author:Nadine Lindskog
Nadine first became interested in Japan and Japanese culture after working with an exchange program at her university. After hearing so many wonderful things from the exchange students she worked with she was longing for a chance to see Japan for herself. That opportunity came to her in the form of the JET program where she spent 5 years on a small island in the beautiful prefecture of Okinawa. While living in this very rural community of just under 1,300 people she was lucky to experience a glimpse into some of Okinawa’s unique traditions and culture. In her free time, she traveled the main island of Japan as well as eastern Asia, seeking out the most delicious foods and exciting experiences. She currently resides in the United States but hopes to return to Japan in the future.