Colourful manhole cover
Culture & tradition,  Japan,  Photographing Public Art,  Travel galleries

Gallery: the humble manhole cover as public art

The Japanese seem to take pride in making everything look the best it possibly can; even the humble manhole cover is an opportunity for some decorative design. Each town or city has its own unique styles, and many are not only intricately moulded but also colourfully painted.

The launch of Marsha and Cee’s Photographing Public Art Challenge seemed to me a great opportunity to share a few images to illustrate what I mean. After all, why shouldn’t something this functional be made to look as attractive as possible?

Apparently in the late 1980s, someone from the Public Sewer department of the Ministry of Construction proposed that each municipality should create a unique manhole cover design. The hope was that this would improve the image of the sewage industry. The idea caught on. Now there are even annual competitions for the best manhole covers between the different municipalities.


Painted manhole cover

In Osaka the first sewage system was constructed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi to serve the castle he built. So it’s not surprising to see that castle featured on this manhole cover design, along with water and the city’s flower, sakura (cherry blossom). I saw both plain and painted versions of this design.

Ornate metal manhole cover

This design also features the castle and in front of it a boat on one of the city’s many canals.


Colourful manhole cover
jpellgen on Flickr, licensed for non-commercial use

This modern paper crane design commemorates the thousands of paper cranes offered daily by children visiting the Children’s Peace Monument in the Peace Park, in memory of local girl Sadako Sasaki.


Colourful manhole cover

This town is famous for its temari balls, embroidered balls made traditionally from kimono silk and used for ball games. The manhole cover’s design is based on these.


Ornate metal manhole cover

Every Japanese city seems to have its own flower symbol. The manhole cover for Takayama features rhododendron flowers, which are symbolic for that city.


Ornate metal manhole cover

The symbol in the centre of this cover is that of the city of Kyoto. I have read that a turtle (a symbol of wisdom and longevity) is usually the main motif on manhole covers here. I’m not sure though whether the one I photographed is supposed to show stylised turtle shell patterns or something completely different!


Yellow painted manhole cover

This manhole cover displays the city symbol of Nikko at its centre which also appears on its flag. The five petals of the flower represent the former five towns and villages that together make up the city. I haven’t been able to find out the significance of the yellow rays pointing out from the centre but it seems likely to me that they represent the sun.

Yellow painted manhole cover

This one has the same sun design but a different centre. This is the design from its previous flag, used 1893-2006. so perhaps this is an older manhole cover? The design was changed when Nikko merged with the city of Imaichi and the districts of Ashio , Fujiwara and Kuriyama to create today’s municipality.

Today there are dedicated Flickr groups for lovers of these covers, someone has written a book about them (‘Drainspotting’ – what else?!) You can buy ornamental copies of them for your home or prints to hang on your wall. And in Japan they are such a big thing that Manhole Cover Summits are held for manhole cover fans, known as ‘manholers’, to gather and share their passion.

I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I do find them both interesting and in many cases attractive; I hope you do too!

I visited Japan in 2013


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