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Works of Art – The Decorated Manhole Covers of Japan

Works of Art – The Decorated Manhole Covers of Japan
on February, 28 2013

Most visitors coming to Japan look at the regular tourist destinations – nature trails, modern building, historical buildings, temples, churches, parks and gardens, monuments. Therefore for most people, the way to look at the Japanese scenery is either up or straight ahead. Few people ever look down when doing the touristy things, and in the case of Japan, if you do not look down, you might be missing something unique and very beautiful – the decorated manhole covers of Japan

But why look down when there are so many things to see up ahead or way up? That is because most towns in Japan have started a unique tradition, that is, decorating their manhole covers. And these are not ordinary decorations like painting them in bright colors. The manholes are truly works of art, not your plain, ordinary-looking and boring round iron manhole covers that you see anywhere else.

Manhole Covers

The manhole covers have more than a hundred years of history. And when times are hard, these street-level cast iron covers that provide access to the sewage system or other utility systems below the street were often stolen and sold to junk shops.

They are round because that is the best shape to prevent the cover from slipping into the hole. At the same time, they provide protection to vehicles, pedestrians and animals from falling into the utility service access.

Decorated Manhole Covers of Japan

It is uncertain when the tradition to have the manhole covers in Japan designed as such started. But nevertheless, it has become a trend and competitions are carried out among the towns to come up with their best designs.

The manhole covers were made with intricate design, often using symbols and things that represent the town, be it flowers, animals, birds, natural scenery, or trees. They did not only become local landmarks, but they have been created to remind the people enjoying the unique designs about the importance of sewerage system to everyone’s life.


For people who love to travel, particularly around Japan, the current trend is to walk around different municipalities to do a bit of drainspotting, that is, looking for these beautiful manhole covers that are not only painted in colors suited to the design, but also find out something of the culture, tradition, industry or general outlook of the community. Avid travelers are eagerly looking for these pedestrian works of art and lovingly collecting photographs of these cultural icons.


Who would not be amazed at these manhole covers? When you see one you will immediately see the dedication, attention, care and the deep thought that went to the creation of the design, which had already become a symbol of a place. Traces of history are also discernible from the artworks.

In Nankou, Osaka, one cover has a motif of blossoms and pagoda. Osaka has several temples and the gardens in the city are excellent, with a Zen-like quality that gives off a sense of peace.

Hokkaido is known for their squid and the delicacies made from the seafood. That is why you are likely to find a manhole with a squid motif. Nara City which is famous for its deer park has a manhole that shows a deer amid the branches thick with sakura blossoms.

Uruma City in Okinawa regularly holds a bull fight. It is not the organized bullfight like in Spain. This is about two bulls fighting, with horns and all. It is understandable then that the manhole cover should depict three pairs of bulls facing each other, heads down and horns on the ready.

A cover in Ichinomiya shows a smiling little person dressed in striped pants and a top with several stars in different colors. He is set amid flowers and leaves laid in a pattern over a fresh green background. It is something that would erase the gloom in your day, with the little man greeting you with an effervescent smile.

There are hundreds of these beautifully decorated manhole covers in Japan. All you have to do when you visit the country is to look down and find them.

Bernadine Racoma

Bernadine is a writer, researcher, professional and multi-awarded blogger and new media consultant. She brings with her a rich set of experience in the corporate world, as well as in the field of research and writing. Having taken early retirement after working as an international civil servant and traveling the world for 22 years, she has aggressively pursued her main interest in writing and research. You can also find Bernadine Racoma at .

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