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Full-color manhole cover in Kanazawa, Japan  | © Andrea Schaffer / Flickr
Full-color manhole cover in Kanazawa, Japan | © Andrea Schaffer / Flickr
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These Artistic Manhole Covers in Japan Are a Thing of Beauty

Picture of Christine Bagarino
Updated: 17 October 2017
When visiting Japan, you may be captivated by the cherry blossom trees, shrine gates, and elegant castles all around you, but look down and you’ll find a unique display of Japanese aesthetics right beneath your feet.

Manhole covers might seem like a mundane everyday object, and in most countries they indeed are — a utilitarian metal lid, trod on by thousands of people each day. But in Japan, manhole covers are an expression of community identity and a unique application of public art meets public utility.

Manhole cover depicting UNESCO World Heritage Shirakawa-go Village
Manhole cover depicting UNESCO World Heritage Shirakawa-go Village | © Tamago Moffle / Flickr

Modern water and sewage systems weren’t popular when they first arrived in Japan, as the cost of installing the below-ground systems were seen as prohibitively expensive by local communities outside of big cities. However, a government plan that allowed communities to create their very own cover designs won over taxpayers and launched a number of local variations throughout the country. Despite the higher cost of these more elaborate, sometimes full-color, manhole covers the effort was a huge success.

Today, these artistic Japanese manhole covers have spawned a worldwide network of manhole cover photographers, a line of collectable cards, and even a book dedicated to their history called Drainspotting.

Here are eight gorgeous manhole covers demonstrating the variety of styles and elements found across Japan.

Floral themes

Floral designs are a common motif for Japanese manhole covers. This one from Chikushino City in Fukuoka prefecture features a combination of Japanese camellia, the official ‘city tree’, and scarlet sage, the ‘city flower’.

Manhole cover spotted in Chikushino, Fukuoka
Manhole cover spotted in Chikushino, Fukuoka | ©

Local landmarks

Local landmarks are frequently incorporated into manhole cover designs. This one from Osaka, Japan, depicts a highly stylized image of Osaka Castle.

Manhole cover spotted in Suminoe-ku, Osaka City
Manhole cover spotted in Suminoe-ku, Osaka City | © Daiju Azuma / Flickr

Local history

Some manhole covers incorporate elements related to the history of the local area, such as this one from Mie prefecture depicting the pilgrimage to Ise Shrine, a tradition that goes back hundreds of years.

Manhole cover spotted in Ise City, Mie prefecture
Manhole cover spotted in Ise City, Mie prefecture | © Jim O’Neil / Flickr

This manhole cover from Nagano, Japan, commemorates the XVIII Olympic Winter Games, held there in 1998.

Manhole cover spotted in Nagano City
Manhole cover spotted in Nagano City | © bryansjs / Flickr

Local delicacies

Famous local food and goods may also be depicted on manhole covers, like this colorful example from Hakodate, Hokkaido. The port city is famous for its seafood, especially squid, and even has a ‘squid dance’ performed at local festivals.

Manhole cover spotted in Hakodate, Hokkaido
Manhole cover spotted in Hakodate, Hokkaido | © Photocapy / Flickr

This manhole cover from Shimonoseki City, the ‘Pufferfish Capital of the World’, depicts the delicious but deadly local delicacy.

Manhole cover spotted in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi prefecture
Manhole cover spotted in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi prefecture | © Daiju Azuma / Flickr

Local icons

The iconic local deer of Nara are portrayed rather elegantly on this manhole cover, but they are known to be a bit greedy and impatient and sometimes headbutt visitors or nibble the buttons off of people’s clothing.

Manhole cover spotted in Nara, Japan
Manhole cover spotted in Nara, Japan | © coniferconifer / Flickr

Local pride

Manhole covers are a unique way to show off local pride in Japan. This manhole cover from Hiroshima prefecture features the popular baseball team Hiroshima Carp set against a backdrop of maple leaves, another local symbol.

Manhole cover spotted in Hiroshima, Japan
Manhole cover spotted in Hiroshima, Japan | © Addy Cameron-Huff / Flickr