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Tourists and ex-pat residents alike are always surprised to discover artistically designed manhole covers of all kinds as they walk the streets and village lanes of Japan. These are a rare sight outside Japan where, despite their weight, they would probably be stolen.

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Where Did Artistic Manhole Covers Come From?

Sewer networks had long existed in Japan until foreign engineers introduced a modernized system in the 19th century. This system consisted of underground sewers with above-ground access points called manholes. Manhole covers were given their name because manholes had to be covered for obvious reasons.

Their initial geometric designs were not that remarkable. However, there was a momentous change in the 1980’s when the Japanese Government planned new sewer systems. All communities would be equipped with new sewer systems that discarded above-ground fire hydrants to enlarge streets and facilitate movement and access. However, this idea was met with heated resistance from some.

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Implementing the New Sewer System Plan

broke down some initial resistance to the government’s plan. They hoped these would promote the cities in charge of the covers’ maintenance. Manholes belonging to private electrical supply companies existed before this change. After the change, new manhole covers for sewers, water and fire hydrants suddenly dotted the pavements and streets of Japan.

Fire hydrant valve cover in Shizuoka
Fire hydrant valve manhole cover devices in Shizuoka

Eventually, they even became excellent examples of urban art. Not only that, but perhaps most astonishing was that these design efforts were officially organized by municipalities who devised the designs themselves. The first designs appeared in Nagoya City, later to be followed in the whole country.

A pristine manhole cover with the design of a bird in firefighting gear.
The kingfisher manhole cover that was never used in Shizuoka City

The municipalities sent their designs to foundries, who cast the designs into wrought iron. The designs used both neutral and bright colors to fill designs thanks to highly resistant compounds. The results are often striking, although errors are still made. Take, for example, a recent mishap with a beautiful design of Shizuoka City’s bird emblem, the kingfisher, for a new fire hydrant manhole cover. The design had to be scrapped when officials realized it would become dangerously slippery in the rain, despite its impressive colors.

The Different Kinds of Manhole Covers in Japan

Let me introduce you to a very limited collection of unique manhole covers in Japan. There are more than 1,700 communities that have one or design across the country! Although this is not a comprehensive list, you may find a favorite.

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Architectural Manhole Covers

Some designs feature local and more famous cultural assets such as buildings, bridges, works of art, museums, and the like.

A manhole cover design with the old Shizuoka City Hall dome and sparrows.
Built in 1943, the dome atop the city hall is registered as a tangible cultural property in Shizuoka.

A rare design showing the old Shizuoka City Hall dome on a road maintenance manhole cover is pictured above.

A square fire hydrant cover design with landmarks around Kobe City.

Lastly, this square fire hydrant cover showcases some of the characteristic features of Kobe City in Hyogo Prefecture.

Sports Design on Manhole Covers

Many of the manhole cover designs found in Japan feature sports! The first two designs feature a playful soccer (football) theme!

A manhole cover design of a soccer ball in Saitama Prefecture.
Saitama S.C. is a fan-favorite soccer club in the Prefecture!

Saitama and its citizens show their support and appreciation for their favorite teams through these unique manhole cover designs.

A manhole cover design with three soccer players in Shizuoka.

Another popular sport across Japan is baseball. Thus, the Yokohama Baystars design, pictured below, is a great choice for Yokohama City, Kanagawa Prefecture.

A cover with a Yokohama Baystars Baseball design in Yokohama City, Kanagawa Prefecture.
The Yokohama Baystars are a professional baseball team in the Japanese Central League.

Next, take a look at this interesting design below! You can find this manhole cover in Shizuoka City.

A manhole cover design showing various sports at Elope Stadium in Shizuoka Prefecture.

Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa is where some of the FIFA World Cup soccer games were held in 2002 and where some of the Rugby World Cup games were held in 2019. What a great way to bring the city together!

A manhole cover design showing a blue bird mascot in front of a fire truck in Iwata City.
This manhole cover features Julibo-kun, the mascot of Julibo Iwata, Iwata City’s premier soccer club.

Finally, the fire hydrants manhole covers will provide you with plenty of fun! You may see this unique design in Iwata City, Shizuoka Prefecture.

Manhole Covers Featuring Cultural Assets

The legend of the bamboo cutter on a manhole cover is arguably the most popular design in Japan. Most Japanese people are familiar with this folk tale, and with the bright colors and attractive design, this cover is a wonder!

A cover with the design of bamboo, Mt. Fuji and a woman in a kimono.
This manhole cover is located in Fuji City, Shizuoka Prefecture.

You can also find commemorative manhole cover designs, which are easily recognizable and quite popular. The example below was installed in 2015 in Shizuoka City to commemorate the death of Tokugawa Ieyasu. The design also highlights the Kunozan Toshogu Shrine and the World Cultural Heritage of Mt. Fuji and Miho Matsubara Beach.

A manhole design showing Mt. Fuji and a traditional style building.
The Kunozan Toshugu Shrine is a UNESCO World Heritage Site!

Next, this fire hydrant manhole cover features “Matoi” (Firemen Festival Pole) in Kambara, Shimizu Ku, in Shizuoka Prefecture.

A square yellow cover with a design showing matoi (fire festival pole) in Shizuoka City.

As you can see, several different kinds of manhole cover designs feature cultural symbols, places, and objects.

Mt. Fuji and Nature in Manhole Cover Designs

Now, look at some designs from Shizuoka Prefecture that have too many Mt. Fuji-themed manhole covers to count!

A manhole cover depicting Mt. Fuji and Miho Matsubara Beach in Shizuoka City.
Miho Matsubara Beach is famous for its views of Mt. Fuji!
A cover design showing Mt. Fuji and a thermal hot spring.
There are hundreds of hot springs around the Mt. Fuji area due to the volume of volcanic activity underneath the Earth’s surface.

The design above is rare, as it is the only Mt. Fuji manhole cover in Yoshiwara, Fuji City, to commemorate a sacred thermal source!

A manhole design with Mt. Fuji, a bird and wisteria flowers.
Wisteria is referenced in Japanese literature, folklore, and design, among other cultural assets.

You can find this design depicting Mt. Fuji and wisteria flowers in Fujieda City, Shizuoka Prefecture. The design is a pun, as “fuji,” albeit written differently, means “wisteria.”

A manhole cover in Shizuoka Prefecture with a blue hollyhock (floral) design.
Hollyhock is a common pattern used in traditional Japanese family crests.

There are too many designs to count for flower lovers! This tachi aoi (hollyhock) design is located in Shizuoka Prefecture and is just one of many floral designs.

A manhole cover design depicting Mt. Fuji, the ocean and bonito fish in Shizuoka Prefecture.
Katsuo is an integral part of Shizuoka seafood cuisine!

Katsuo/bonito occupies an important place in the gastronomy of Yaizu City, Shizuoka Prefecture.

Another bonito fish and an ocean wave design in Shizuoka Prefecture.
Katsuo is called by different names depending on where in Japan you are and the season!

In addition, the design above may be an even better rendition of the same katsuo/bonito theme in the city.

Geometric Cover Designs

Lovers of geometrical designs will have plenty to look at, such as the yellow design below in Yui, Shimizu Ku, in Shizuoka City.

A geometric manhole cover design in Shizuoka City's Shimizu Ward.

Of course, plenty of designs include several elements of culture, nature, and artistic patterns. A great example is this magnificent dragonfly below, the emblem of Iwata City in Shizuoka Prefecture.

A design with a geometric blue border around a dragonfly in Iwata City.

This dragonfly cover design also features an interesting geometric pattern!

The Final Cover Design in My Collection

Now, I’ll conclude with a manhole cover designed with Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu.

A colorful design depicting Mt. Fuji, samurai armor and a river in Shizuoka.
Sumpu was renamed “Shizuoka” during the Meiji period.

Lord Ieyasu spend his youth and much of his life in the Sumpu area, climbing the ranks to become a daimyo (local lord) before eventually rising to the seat of shogun (military ruler of the country). He retired to Sumpu, present-day Shizuoka, in 1607, making this city a fitting location for this manhole cover design.

Robert-Gilles Martineau

Robert-Gilles Martineau

Robert-Gilles Martineau, a 40-year French resident in Shizuoka and japan has been blogging and writing about his love for Japanese gastronomy and tourism in three languages since 1998. His motto: "There is always a new place to visit and a new food to taste out there!"

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