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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
I miss Japan and I need to go there again for these manholes!
Hi Preveena, I echo that! Share your findings ya. Cheers!
Very enjoyable read! So interesting!
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!