Art in the most unexpected places: Manhole covers in Japan

Like this post? Help us by sharing it!

Japan is full of surprises – this is the country of J-Pop, sumo wrestling and geisha after all. Perhaps one of the loveliest and most surprising things about Japan though is the way that public places are cared for. Those clean streets are one of Japan’s finest attributes, but look beneath your feet for that Japanese attention to detail…

Manhole covers; surprises above the sewage…

Japan is becoming increasingly recognised as a must-visit destination amongst art aficionados. From world-class museums in Tokyo to the beautiful “art island” of Naoshima, there’s no shortage of places to discover striking works of art.

But art here isn’t always hung up in a private gallery or ensconced in a sculpture park – some of the artistic masterpieces that Japan is proudest of can be found right where you’d expect the least… right beneath your feet!

Of course, I’m talking about Japan’s delightful obsession with colourful, ornately decorated manhole covers.

Origin of artistic manhole covers

Osaka – Carolyn Clapham

The first decorated manholes sprung up in the 1980s, allegedly as part of an ingenious marketing ruse. A savvy bureaucrat tried to raise public awareness of the escalating costs of modernising Japan’s sewerage system.

With a little creative overhaul, these functional items have since been transformed into public works of art that are the highlight of many a walking tour. The designs were so popular amongst locals and tourists alike that the craze quickly took off. Different municipalities even went into competition to create the most elaborately decorated piece! As a general rule, the designs have some connection with the area or depict a local landmark, be it cherry blossom in Kyoto or the castle in Osaka. There are now near on 6,000 artistic manholes dotted throughout Japan.

Tokyo – Carolyn Clapham

Unsurprisingly they’ve developed something of a cult following and have been a subject of interest for many world-class photographers. There’s also a popular book documenting this distinctive aspect of Japanese culture*, and even a Japanese Society of Manhole Covers!

Snaps of art on the floor

I’d like to make a bet that there aren’t many first-timers to Japan who haven’t taken a snap of at least one on their travels – they certainly haven’t gone un-noticed by our eagle-eyed IJT’ers. To put my theory to the test, we’ve asked a few of our past InsideJapan travellers to send in a selection of their favourites:

Matsuyama – Michelle Wright


Matsumoto – Clare Austen


Takamatsu – Michelle Wright


Hamamatsu – Vicky Pryer


Tsuwano – Vicky Pryer


Matsue – Vicky Pryer


Kurashiki – Vicky Pryer


Nr. Mount Fuji – Vicky Pryer


Takumatsu – Vicky Pryer

If you’re feeling inspired to partake in a bit of drain spotting in Japan for yourself, speak to one of our expert travel consultants about planning your perfect trip to Japan.

*Find out more about Japanese Manhole Covers in Remo Camerota’s book Drainspotting: Japanese Manhole Covers.

Like this post? Help us by sharing it!