The Real Meaning Of Tokyo’s Iconic Sakura Manhole Covers

Japan is known for producing some of the most incredible manhole covers in the world. Using artistic designs to celebrate a city’s culture, history, and industry, these street ornaments come to life with beautifully painted results. When it comes to Tokyo’s manhole covers, the most commonly spotted is the classic all-metal flower design. While not the most colourful manhole cover, this endearing artwork is one of the most recognisable in the country, with a few hidden secrets in its metalwork.

Tokyo’s famous manhole cover, the cherry blossom and ginkgo biloba

Origins Of The Tokyo Manhole Cover

Japan’s decorative manhole covers first started appearing in the 1950’s, with the first custom designs being Tokyo’s sakura design, and Nagoya’s water strider design. These manhole covers were used in other parts of the country as well, which explains why they still appear so far away from Tokyo. It wasn’t until 1985 that the more stunning coloured examples began to grace the streets all around Japan, as paints were applied in the steel foundry. The amazing designs were the idea of a man named Yasutake Kameda in the ministry of construction, who proposed interesting designs as a way to make the population excited to fund grand sewerage projects nationwide. Over time, people embraced the street art, and the manhole covers became something of a celebration of local identity.

Flower Design Of Tokyo’s Manhole Cover

The flower manhole cover was installed across 23 wards of Tokyo. The central shape is (unsurprisingly!) the Yoshino cherry blossom, one of Tokyo’s most famous and beautiful flowers. Tokyo is known for its wonderful cherry blossom spotting opportunities during sakura season. Surrounding the petals are not random shapes, but the fan-shaped flowers from the Gingko tree. And the most subtle addition is the prefectural bird of Tokyo, the black-headed gull. 13 flapping birds form a circle around the edge of the manhole cover. The gull has historically been a favourite subject of poetry and painting in Tokyo.

What Do The Coloured Panels Represent On Tokyo’s Manhole Covers?

The characters in the centre of the manhole cover translate to ‘Tokyo Sewer’. Text at the bottom of the cover reads ‘Osui’, which means ‘sewage.’ In newer versions of the manhole cover, four round coloured octagons are set into the manhole cover. They provide information about the manhole cover.

On the right, the symbol denotes the year that the sewerage was laid, with two numbers (eg. a yellow octagon with 68, or blue with 03). If it is yellow, it refers to the 20th century (so, 1968), and if it is blue, it refers to the 21st century (eg. 2003). On the left, colour coding denotes the type of sewerage or pipe below. Yellow means it is a sewerage or confluence, and blue means it is for rainwater. For the middle numbers, the green shapes in the middle are unique identifiers to identify the location of the manhole cover.

Other Manhole Covers In Tokyo

Besides the ubiquitous sakura design, Tokyo features plenty of other manhole covers across the sprawling metropolis. As such a huge and diverse city, there are plenty of other cultural elements which have their time to shine in manhole cover format.

Akishima Whale Manhole Cover

Akishima, in western Tokyo, features a happy smiling whale on their manhole covers. The area is known for the discovery of fossils belonging to an extinct whale called the akishima whale, dating back almost 2 million years. Besides having the manhole cover design, an annual festival and parade also honours Akishima’s beloved whale.

Drawing of Akishima manhole cover with happy whale cartoon
Akishima manhole cover, showing the Akishima whale

Hachioji Puppet Manhole Cover

In the Tokyo suburb of Hachioji is a puppetry company called Hachioji Kuruma Ningyo. Founded in 1872, this unique style of puppetry recreates stories from Edo era Japan and literature. Puppeteers control each puppet whilst dressed in a black suit to blend into the background, with the 1-metre high puppet mounted on a small cart. To celebrate its status as an Intangible Cultural Asset by the city of Tokyo, the puppets are featured on the neighbourhood manhole covers.

Drawing of Japanese manhole cover sketch hachioji puppet figure
The Hachioji Kuruma Ningyo puppet design of the Hachioji manhole cover

Hello Kitty was created on the outskirts Tokyo, in the suburb of Tama (about an hour’s train ride from Shinjuku). Today, Tama is the location of the hugely popular Sanrio Puroland, a Hello Kitty theme park. To celebrate the park and the character, adorable Hello Kitty-themed manhole covers are found in the area, with the theme park in the background.

Hello Kitty Manhole Cover, Tama

Drawing of Hello Kitty manhole cover in Tama cute kawaii design
The Tama Hello Kitty manhole cover

Monchhichi Manhole Cover, Katsushika

Another of Tokyo’s beloved character creations is Monchhichi, a monkey designed in 1974 in Katsushika, Tokyo. His design is featured on 10 manhole covers that can be discovered in this area.

Drawing of Shin-Koiwa Monchitchi manhole cover Japanese drain
The Moncchichi manhole cover

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While Japanese manhole covers have come a long way in their design evolution since Tokyo’s original sakura designs, it still remains one of the most iconic designs in the country. Next time you’re in Tokyo (or any Japanese city, for that matter!), make sure you look down for a moment, and appreciate some of the wonderful artworks beneath your feet.


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