Japan has taken manhole cover art to a whole new level. In towns and cities all over the country, these discs of street metal have been transformed into beautiful masterpieces. What’s more, the designs of the manhole covers each tell the story of the location, often paying tribute to industries, foods, animals, icons and history. The best part? There are thousands of manhole covers to discover. By looking at the manhole covers of Japan, we see the pride and joy of cities large and small put on display.
Why does Japan have such amazing manhole covers?
No country has manhole covers as amazing as Japan. The elaborate designs of the manhole covers began in the 1980’s, when it was thought that some extra flair to the designs would get taxpayers excited about the government rolling out new (and expensive) sewer projects.
Today, a manhole cover can cost up to $3000 each. But it’s all worth it – manhole covers in Japan have become a phenomenon. There is a series of collectible trading cards dedicated to them, as well as an annual summit that attracts thousands of ‘Manholers’. Let’s take a look at some of the most impressive examples.
Hello, three cute squids! At the southern tip of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, Hakodate fishes for hundreds of tons of squid every year. Squid is a major industry in Hakodate, and it’s also a treasured citywide icon. You can find squid at their annual port festival, where there are squid parades, squid costumes, even a squid dance!
Takamatsu Manhole Covers – Samurai Archer
The beautifully coloured archer on the manhole covers of Takamatsu tells the story of a samurai in the battle of Yashima in 1185. Nasu No Yoichi was a Minamoto samurai who pursued a Taira ship into the sea on horseback. In a spectacular shot, he pierced a waving fan on a stick with an perfectly aimed arrow, which was being used as a taunt and a rallying symbol. When the fan washed up ashore on a small island a few days later, it was named Ogijima (fan island) in honour of the legendary story.
Iga City Manhole Covers – Cute Ninjas
This cute manhole cover of kawaii ninjas comes from Iga City, home of Iga-ryū (ninjitsu and jujutsu) traditions. Indeed, there is even a Ninja Museum in this traditional home of the ninjas! Here we see three ninjas with icons from the city; the bamboo lily on the head of one ninja, the Japanese pine tree, and a pheasant on another ninja’s head.
Hiroshima Manhole Covers – Paper Cranes
In Hiroshima, the manhole covers depict colourful paper cranes, a symbol of hope and healing in the wake of the dropping of the atomic bomb. There are many other depictions of paper cranes in Hiroshima, including the Peace Memorial Park, and the Peace Memorial Museum.
Chatan Manhole Cover – Surfing Mascot
In the Okinawan town of Chatan, a section of coastline known as Mihama (The American Village), there are 19 beautiful manhole covers along the walkway. They feature Chitan, Chatan’s surfing mascot. There is also the town’s official flower, the bauhinia variegata (also known as the orchid tree), a scene of Sunset Beach, and the town’s symbol.
Hokuei Town Manhole Covers – Conan
Hokeui Town is the hometown of beloved manga artist Gosho Aoyama, creator of the manga series Detective Conan (Case Closed). In the area of Conan Town, there are manhole covers dedicared to the series, and to the town. In this crazy cute manhole cover, the character Conan Edogawa runs a marathon against two of the town’s agricultural products, a watermelon and a nagaimo (a Chinese yam). Bizarre, yet wonderful!
Akishima, in the west of Tokyo, features a happy, smiling whale on their manhole covers. Although over 50km from the ocean, Akishima was the discovery of whale bone fossils in 1961. The Akishima whales have been extinct for almost 2 million years, and are named after the city. Akishima features their beloved whale during their annual whale festival.
Yamaguchi’s manhole covers feature an old steam train under a tree of cherry blossoms. The locomotive, originally built in 1937, still operates today, and takes tourists from Shin-Yamaguchi to Tsuwano in a cloud of steam. The experience is lots of fun, and worth visiting Yamaguchi just to ride the train!
Kusatsu Onsen is a popular mountain onsen town. Yumomi is the process of ‘water beating’, a method of cooling hot spring water. The hot spring water is stirred with a large paddle, combined with folk songs and dance. The manhole covers of Kusatsu Onsen show one of these traditional yumomi water stirrers, in a happy design full of love!
Japan’s most recognisable manhole cover is probably Tokyo’s flower design, seen all around the streets of Tokyo. There are two plants being honoured here. The first is the yoshino cherry blossom, a Japanese floral icon, which blooms all around the country, typically around April. The second plant is the ginkgo biloba, or maidenhair tree. Their split-fan shaped leaves are peeking out from behind the cherry blossom. They thrive in urban spaces, and survive pollution well (they’ve even been known to survive the Hiroshima atomic bomb). They’re tall, elegant trees that give wonderful autumn colours when the seasons change.
In Hachiojii, in the west of Tokyo, the manhole covers pay tribute to a 160-year old local puppetry company Hachioji Kuruma Ningyo. They perform stories from Edo period, as well as classical Japanese literature. The puppets are often over a metre high, and attached to a moveable cart (Kuruma), with each puppet controlled by a single puppeteer dressed all in black.
Tama Manhole Covers – Hello Kitty
In Tama city, part of the western part of Tokyo’s urban sprawl, local icon Hello Kitty is being introduced to their manhole covers to attract visitors. Why Tama city? Because Sanrio Puroland (the Hello Kitty theme park) is located here, making it an extremely popular destination.
Shin-Koiwa Manhole Covers – Monchitchi
Shin-Koiwa in Tokyo is home to the Sekuguchi corporation, the creators of the beloved Monchitchi monkey character from the 70s. Monchitchi, while not as popular as in the past, lives on in manhole cover form.
Naruto City Manhole Covers – Whirlpools
Under the Onaruto bridge, there is a natural phenomenon that occurs in the Naruto Strait. The whirlpools form naturally because of the underwater geography, and th mixing tides from the Seto Inland Sea and the Pacific Ocean. They pop up every few hours, and are popular with tourists on boats. The manhole also depict local nashi pears, and the Naruto tai (sea bream).
Kumagaya Manhole Covers – Fireworks festival
The city of two rivers, Kumagaya (north of Tokyo), the local manhole covers show adorable fish poking their heads out of the Arakawa river. Up above are mighty fireworks bursting in the night sky. Kumagaya City has an annual fireworks festival, dating back to 1948. It’s a popular night out for locals, who turn out in their yukata to watch 10,000 fireworks light up the night sky. There is also a large food market, serving such favourite market treats as takoyaki and fish-shaped taiyaki.
Tottori Manhole Covers – Yodoe umbrellas
These strange round features on Tottori’s manhole covers are umbrellas. Specifically, they are yodoe umbrellas, a traditional washi paper and oil umbrella made in the region, which are celebrated during the city’s annual Shanshan festival. The Bon odori (Obon dances) are a style of dance to welcome the spirits of the dead, and the kasa-odori is a style of umbrella dance.
Beppu Manhole Covers – Bamboo and flowers
Beppu is a city in Kyushu known for its wonderful hot springs and onsens. But, instead of depicting clouds of steam and bubbling mud, the manhole covers are lovely floral homages to different plants of the region. Flanking the cover are bamboo stalks. Beppu is known locally as a producer of fine bamboo products. The design also features hydrangeas and daisies, features of the wonderful Beppu Park.
Daiei Manhole Covers – Watermelons
The town of Daiei, in Tottori prefecture, is a watermelon producing region, honouring their beloved fruit on their manhole covers. The flowers and black background produce a very beautiful and striking result.
Hand-drawing these manhole covers was a lot of fun, and took a very, very long time to complete. With thousands and thousands to choose from, it’s a shame that I couldn’t draw more!
Manhole covers in Japan are an unexpected delight for locals and visitors alike, and after spending some time exploring their artwork, I can understand why people travel all around the country in search of the most unusual and beautiful examples. It’s all part of the little things that make Japan such a wonderful country to explore.
Which manhole cover is your favourite? Have you seen any which you think I should include for a second round of drawings? Let me know in the comments!