A Manhole Cover Is A Manhole Cover… Unless You’re In Japan

Manhole or drain covers are things we hardly take notice of when we’re walking down the streets. Be it in the alley, lane or pavement, inconspicuous as they are, we shun them. In fact, they’re merely points of access to a labyrinth of drainage, sewer or utilities system under our feet… It isn’t a big deal, right? Furthermore, how many of us could imagine that manhole covers would be a phenomenon or craze of sort… To becoming a cult following? Well, it actually did. In the land of the rising sun, everything is possible… Where the mundane manhole covers are transformed into intricate and extraordinary works of art. During my travels to Japan, I was fortunate to encounter some of the most unique and symbolic manhole covers.

Round manhole cover featuring Hakodate's Old Public Hall encircled by star-shaped green outline which represents the Old Fort Goryokaku.
This colourful manhole cover is just one of the 6,000 designs found all across Japan.
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Up Close And Personal: Manhole Covers At Four Distinct Locales

Since the abolition of visa requirement for short-term stay for Malaysians took effect on 1 July 2013, I jumped at the opportunity to travel to Japan. I have never been to Japan before that. And Japan tops my travel bucket list because of its ethereal landscapes i.e. from lakes to seas, hills to mountain ranges, and villages to concrete jungles. On top of that, I’ve always been intrigued by the Japanese impeccable hospitality, and their exceptionally clean (and clever!) public toilets.

It was in 2016 when I first stumbled upon the beautiful manhole covers in Hokkaido. I subsequently discovered another in a port city in Honshu. Below are brief summaries of the four distinct locales, and their landmarks, where I had spotted the amazing manhole covers :-

1) Lake Akan, Kushiro, Hokkaido

Lake Akan is a beautiful crater lake located in Akan Mashu National Park, Kushiro, eastern part of Hokkaido. It is acclaimed for its mystical, pristine surroundings and therapeutic hot springs (onsen). The lake is a popular getaway for both tourists and locals alike.

Mount Oakan partially shrouded in mist at Lake Akan.
Mount Oakan, also called “Male Mountain”, shrouded partially in mist, stands at 1,371-metre in the east of Lake Akan.
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1a) Ainu Settlement

The Ainu are the native people of Hokkaido. Currently, there are some 36 households of about 120 people living in this Ainu Kotan (Ainu settlement) at Lake Akan. It is the largest Ainu settlement by far in Hokkaido. Several souvenir shops selling beautiful Ainu hand-carved wooden products, embroidery and other crafts lined both sides of the street.

Entrance to Ainu Kotan at Lake Akan
The entrance to Ainu Kotan. The owl, pronounced as fukurō in Japanese, is a symbol of good fortune. Apart from that, it is also a symbol of protection from hardship and suffering. Fukurō written as 不苦労 – fu means “no” and kurō means “hardship, suffering”. The Ainu deem the owl as their village guardian.
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Manhole: An Ainu traditional craft shop with an elaborate wooden structure atop the entrance.
One of the many Ainu traditional craft shops selling hand-carved wooden products and other crafts. This shop has an interesting and elaborate wooden artwork atop its entrance.
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Manhole alert! Ainu souvenir shop with big wooden owl carving. In front of the owl is Lake Akan's colourful manhole cover.
It was on the pavement of this souvenir shop when I stumbled upon the manhole cover (in the foreground, right in front of the big wooden owl carving), as shown below.
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Manhole: Lake Akan's colourful manhole cover depicting its famous cruise, Mount Okan and marimo (green algae balls).
Lake Akan’s hidden gem! This colourful manhole cover depicts three of the lake’s key attractions: their sightseeing cruise, Mount Oakan in the background, and marimo, the lake’s famous rare algae species that forms itself into beautiful green balls.
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1b) Marimo-No-Sato Pier

Not too far away from the Ainu settlement is the Marimo-no-Sato Pier. This is the start and end point for Lake Akan sightseeing cruises. The 85-minute round trip cruise includes a visit to the Marimo Exhibition and Observation Centre on Churui Island. Visitors get to observe and appreciate these mysterious spherical life forms whilst learning about their unique ecology.

The frontage of the Marimo-no-Sato Pier.
Marimo-no-Sato Pier: the ticketing counter is pictured on the right.
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Passenger about to board a boat on Lake Akan at Marimo-no-Sato pier.
Other than the bigger cruises, smaller boats do ply the waters on Lake Akan.
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Manhole cover spotted on the sidewalk outside Sapporo Drug Store near Marimo-no-Sato Pier.
Manhole cover sighted on the pavement outside Sapporo Drug Store (on the right), located just opposite Marimo-no-Sato Pier.
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Manhole cover featuring a pair of airborne red-crowned cranes over wetland, surrounded by pink sakuras and yellow snowflakes.
This manhole cover features a pair of red-crowned cranes hovering above wetland, surrounded by pink sakuras (cherry blossoms) and yellow-coloured snowflakes. The red-crowned crane or ‘tancho’ in Japanese, is an endangered bird found mostly in Hokkaido. It accounts for half of the world’s red-crowned crane population. In Japan, it is a symbol of good fortune and longevity.
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Manhole: An unpainted manhole cover depicting a crane with flapping wings.
 An unpainted manhole cover featuring a crane found on the street outside Ainu Kotan. The iconic crane appears on the 1000 Japanese yen note, and is also Japan Airlines’ logo.
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2) Mount Kurodake, Daisetsuzan National Park, Hokkaido

2a) Sounkyo-Kurodake Ropeway

Mount Kurodake, also known as Black Mountain, is a 1,984-metre high peak located in Daisetsuzan National Park in central Hokkaido. The Sounkyo-Kurodake Ropeway takes you up to the Fifth Station, at an elevation of 1,300-metre of the mountain. This station has an observation deck that offers a panoramic view of the Daisetsuzan National Park and Sounkyo gorges. Then, take a 15-minute forest walking trail to the next viewpoint, and take the chair lift to the Seventh Station.

A brown swing with a signage that reads "Sounkyo Ropeway".
Care for some shots before you hop on the Sounkyo-Kurodake Ropeway gondola? There are some nice onsen hotels nearby this foothill station.
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Kurodake gondola at Sounkyo Ropeway Station
The ride takes seven minutes to reach the Fifth Station at an elevation of 1,300-metre. Each gondola can accommodate up to 101 passengers.
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An aerial view of Daisetsuzan mountain ranges and canyon at Sounkyo, shot take from the gondola.
A magnificent view of the mountain ranges and gorges at Sounkyo, before reaching the Fifth Station.
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2b) Sounkyo Chair Lift

Taking the chair lift from the Fifth Station to the Seventh Station, at a height of 1,500-metre, is most exhilarating. Views of the surrounding lush green foliage and mountains certainly soothe the soul.

Lush green foliage with mountains in the background; and two passengers sharing a chair lift
The chair lift ride from the Fifth Station to the Seventh Station offers breathtaking views of the mountains in Daisetsuzan National Park.
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A snapshot of the Seventh Station and an observation deck to its right from the chair lift.
Seventh Station up ahead. On the left side is another observation deck.
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Seventh Station at Mount Kurodake showing chair lifts shrouded in a thick mist.
Time to return to the Fifth Station… It can get really cold up here at the Seventh Station, at 1,500-metre. Always bring a cardigan or jacket along with you before taking any ride up the mountains.
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Manhole: Kurodake Ropeway terminus at the Fifth Station.
This is the Sounkyo-Kurodake Ropeway terminus at the Fifth Station. The observation deck is on the roof. It offers a 360-degree panoramic view of surrounding mountains and Sounkyo gorges.
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When I took the trail back to the Fifth Station, I stumbled upon a unique manhole cover. It features the various mountains around Daisetsuzan National Park. Yes, even right up in the mountain, too, the manhole cover beckons!

Manhole cover depicting the cardinal directions of the various mountains surrounding Daisetsuzan National Park
Rusty but trusty! This manhole cover depicts the four cardinal directions of the various mountains surrounding Daisetsuzan National Park. Even at 1,300-metre above sea level, the manhole cover doesn’t disappoint!
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3) Hakodate, Hokkaido

Hakodate is a sophisticated city port in the southern tip of Hokkaido. Looming over the town is 334-metre high Mount Hakodate, located at the southwest part of Hakodate city.

Aerial view of Hakodate city skyline from Mount Hakodate Observatory.
I took a three-minute ropeway up to Mount Hakodate Observatory to capture this scenic view of the city skyline.
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3a) Goryokaku Fort And Goryokaku Tower

The Goryokaku is a western-style fort completed in 1866, designated in Japan as a special historic site. In 1914, the fort is turned into a park and opened to the public. Nearby is the 107-metre tall Goryokaku Tower. It has an observatory that offers a panoramic view of the entire beautiful star-shaped estate, surrounded by a moat.

A view of the Goryokaku Tower from Goryokaku Fort surrounded by pink cherry blossom trees and a moat.
Goryokaku Tower as seen from Goryokaku Park. There are some 1,600 sakura trees planted around the park along the moat. Best period to view the beautiful cherry blossoms is from late April to early May.
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Information board showing the star-shaped Goryokaku Fort.
At the top right of this information board is an illustration of the star-shaped Goryokaku Fort. The star is the fort’s identity as shown in the manhole covers below.
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And I spotted these manhole covers on the streets near Goryokaku Tower.

3b) Old Public Hall Of Hakodate Ward

Nestling on the slope below Mount Hakodate is the Old Public Hall of Hakodate Ward (Old Public Hall). It is an American colonial style two-storey building situated further up Motomachi Park. Built in 1910, this notable historic building houses the Imperial family and their special guests during their visits to Hakodate. It offers a spectacular view of Hakodate Bay from its balcony. This building being a distinguish landmark, earned its spot on the manhole covers that I spotted outside Goryokaku Tower (as pictured above).

Exterior front view of the Old Public Hall Of Hakodate Ward
The Old Public Hall Of Hakodate Ward looking majestic from the outside.
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View from Old Public Hall overlooking the Motomachi neighbourhood, with Hakodate Bay in the background
View from the Old Public Hall overlooking its Motomachi neighbourhood, and Hakodate Bay in a distance.
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Hakodate Orthodox Church
A stone’s throw away from the Old Public Hall is the Hakodate Orthodox Church. It is the oldest Russian Orthordox Church in Japan: built in 1860, burnt down in 1907, only to be rebuilt in 1916 to what it is today.
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A floor tile depicting a seagull soaring above the Hakodate Orthodox Church.
Ahem! This is not a manhole cover, but a tile depicting a seagull soaring above Hakodate Orthodox Church. I spotted this interesting piece on the pavement right outside the Old Public Hall.
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Manhole cover with three cute squids embedded in the centre of a sloping street in Motomachi district
Surprisingly, smacked right in the centre of one of the Motomachi sloping streets lies the three-cute-squids (ika in Japanese) manhole cover. Hakodate is famous for its seafood, especially squids.
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Unpainted manhole cover showing three cute squids
A close-up of the three-cute-squids manhole cover.
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4) Minato Mirai 21 Business District, Yokohama, Honshu

Minato Mirai 21, which means ‘Harbour of the Future’, is Yokohama’s central business district. This seaside modern development features many futuristic buildings and tourist attractions. I find several of them noteworthy to be mentioned here.

Hikawa Maru, museum ship docked at Yokohama Port.
The Hikawa Maru is a museum ship, docked permanently beside Yamashita Park in Yokohama since 1961. It is the only surviving cargo-passenger liner built in Japan before World War II. Its shipbuilding technology and interiors are so well-preserved that it was designated as a Nationally Important Cultural Property in 2016.
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InterContinental Yokohama Grand by the bay
InterContinental Yokohama Grand, located at the Minato Mirai district, is easily recognisable by its sail-shape design on one side of the hotel.
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The most notable attractions in this district are the Landmark Tower and the iconic Cosmo Clock 21 Ferris Wheel. The tower, standing at 296-metre, is Japan’s second tallest building. It was near the canal park outside Yokohama World Porters that I spotted the manhole cover that features the city’s famous Yokohama Bay Bridge.

Minato Mirai district's iconic structures. Right to left: Landmark Tower, Yokohama Museum of Art, Queen's Square Yokohama and Cosmo Clock 21 Ferris Wheel.
Minato Mirai district’s most iconic structures (from left to right): The Landmark Tower, Yokohama Museum of Art, Queen’s Square Yokohama (comprising three towers, each being a little shorter than the next), and Cosmo Clock 21 Ferris Wheel.
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Manhole cover featuring Yokohama Bay Bridge.
Manhole cover spotted! Embedded on the pavement of the canal park outside Yokohama World Porters. It features the Yokohama Bay Bridge, a cable-stayed bridge located about two kilometres east of Yamashita Park. Its length is 860 metres. This bridge caters for vehicles only, and has no pedestrian walkway. You can see the bridge from any spot around Yokohama Port.
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Japan’s Phenomenal Manhole Covers: The Origin Uncovered

Originally, manhole covers in Japan had geometric designs. In 1985, there was a dire need to implement costly, but essential sewage projects throughout Japan. In an effort to garner the people’s consent, Mr Yasutake Kameda, a construction specialist, conceived the idea to allow municipalities to design their own manhole covers. Consequently, the mundane-looking manhole covers became visual sensations, and won over the people.

As of to 2017, there are over 12,000 manhole cover variations (from over 6,000 designs) in Japan. An astounding 15 million of the covers are strategically embedded on the streets and pavements throughout Japan. You can spot them easily at tourist spots, theme parks, stadiums, etc. These manhole covers have a lifespan of approximately 30 years, and the municipalities replace 100,000 covers every year. Currently, almost 95 percent of the 1,780 municipalities in Japan pride in their specially designed manhole covers. The designs typically reflect each municipality’s unique identity and characters. For instance, its local culture, landmarks, industries, flora, fauna, and events. In some areas, even its anime and manga culture!

Drainspotting: An Obsession With Manhole Covers That Has Gone Mainstream

Oh, did I mention cult following earlier? The popularity of these manhole covers attributed to the formation of the Japan Society of Manhole Covers. The website, entirely in Japanese, hosts thousands of manhole covers captured by their enthusiasts from all over Japan. These enthusiasts are also called “manholers”, or “drainspotters”. If you can read Japanese, do visit the website for more information, and on what’s trending in the world of drainspotting. Additionally, you may also contribute your manhole cover photographs to the site.

And to all the bibliophiles reading this, do check out a book called “Drainspotting: Japanese Manhole Covers”, written by Remo Camerota. It showcases over 100 photographs of the most stunning manhole cover designs.

This innovative method of brightening up a locality and cheering up its citizens proves how public art can impact everyday life, no matter what form it takes. And the humble manhole cover is no exception.

Remo Camerota, english-australian visual artist, film director and author

Food For Thought: Does Your City Or Town Have Its Unique Manhole Covers, Too?

Now that you’ve virtually “drainspotted” some of Japan’s most beautiful manhole covers, don’t forget to keep a lookout for them underfoot when you’re walking around Japan. Especially more so if your itinerary includes Lake Akan, Mount Kurodake, Hakodate and Yokohama (chuckles).

We’d love to know if your city or town is also adorned with unique manhole covers. Please leave a comment below.

About Flo KHA

Backed with a solid foundation in market research, she brings to the table a wealth of knowledge in consumerism. She knows what consumers want, even when they themselves don't, and match them to their needs and wants.

6 Replies to “A Manhole Cover Is A Manhole Cover… Unless You’re In Japan”

    • Hi Anne, thanks for reading this story. Hope you’ll enjoy drainspotting when you visit Japan in the near future. Cheers!

    • Dear Sharon, many thanks for your kind comment. When you visit Japan after the pandemic blows over, do keep a lookout for their amazing manhole covers. Meanwhile, stay safe!

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