Designer Manhole Covers: A New Kind of Region-Specific Item

● Hello Kitty has made an entrance in Tama City © 1976, 2020 SANRIO CO., LTD. APPROVAL NO. L618065
● This manhole cover with Mount Fuji is reminiscent of Katsushika Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. (Photo provided by Fuji City)
● Abstract illustrations of the Japanese iris (the flower of Koriyama City), a cuckoo (the city’s bird), and the Japanese hill cherry (the city’s tree). (Photo provided by the Koriyama City Waterworks Bureau)
● This manhole cover at Konan-machi features a design with white skunk cabbage flowers, and Mount Bandai and Lake Inawashiro in the background, representing consideration for the environment. (Photo provided by the Koriyama City Waterworks Bureau)
● A design with peaches, a specialty from Date City. (Photo provided by Date City)
● Pikachu greets tourists in Yokohama City. © 2020 Pokémon. © 1995-2020 Nintendo/Creatures Inc./GAME FREAK inc.

   Manhole covers are a familiar sight around the world. Did you know that designer manhole covers in Japan are currently gaining attention as a new type of region-specific item? More and more people walk to visit different regions and see the manhole covers that show the individual characteristics of each area. This article looks at the world of designer manhole covers in Japan.

The Background Behind the Development of Designer Manhole Covers

   Designer manhole covers first appeared in Japan in 1977, at Naha City. They featured a design of happy fish in water that had been cleaned by the sewer system. This initiative drew attention, and so designer manhole covers came to be promoted to inform people about the sewer system and to give the sewers a good impression. These covers began to be produced with colors in 1981. Coated with fluorescent paints that produce colors well, these color manhole covers were easy to see and functioned as guides as night. They even had a practical role in helping firefighting activities at night. Japan’s color manhole covers are made with different designs for each region using molds, and it is said that they are colored by hand, one cover at a time. This resulted in manhole covers that feature both safety and design aesthetics, with sturdiness so that people will not fall into the manholes or slip on the covers. The manhole covers developed into region-specific items that are used to revitalize local areas, or utilized as assets for tourism.

Japan’s first designer manhole cover (Naha City). (Photo provided by the Sewer Public Information Platform (GKP))

Tokyo’s designer manhole cover shows a cherry flower, a symbol of Japan. (Photo provided by the Bureau of Sewerage, Tokyo Metropolitan Government)

Many Kinds of Region-Specific Manhole Covers that Show the Characteristics of the Local Area

   Region-specific manhole covers feature designs with motifs that are symbolic of the local area. These covers have gained wider popularity with the appearance of manhole cards—tools for publicity and communication featuring the origin of each design along with other information. These manhole cards are distributed in each region, and an increasing number of people go to visit region-specific manhole covers to get the cards.

A designer manhole cover featuring Osaka Castle, visited by fans from abroad as well as from within Japan seeking manhole cards. (Photo provided by the Osaka City Public Works Bureau)

A designer manhole cover from Sagae City (Yamagata Prefecture), known as an area that grows cherries. (Photo provided by Sagae City)

   Fuji City is located at the foot of Mount Fuji. It is said that people visit the city from all around, seeking the designer manhole cover and manhole card featuring a design with Mount Fuji at daybreak viewed from Suruga Bay. There are many other types of manhole covers beside those for the tap-water and sewer systems. Fuji City has incorporated Princess Kaguya (who features in a legend that is related to Mount Fuji) in a design for the covers of its fire hydrants.

A designer manhole cover and manhole card from Fuji City.

A designer manhole cover for a fire hydrant, showing Mount Fuji and Princess Kaguya. (Photo provided by Fuji City)

A designer manhole cover based on the Straw Sandal Festival.

A designer manhole cover with the writing “Yuji Koseki’s Hometown.” (Photos provided by Fukushima City)

   More and more tourists visit Fukushima Prefecture as well for its region-specific manhole covers and manhole cards. The manhole covers in Fukushima City include designs based on the Straw Sandal Festival (featuring traditional straw sandals from Japan called Waraji that are weaved from straw), as well as the composer Yuji Koseki who comes from the local area. The manhole covers with the writing “Yuji Koseki’s Hometown” in Japanese, are designed so that the QR code on them can link with an app on your smartphone to play videos with information on the town. Also, Tokorozawa City is promoting collaborations with companies to increase the revenue of its sewer business. This city installed Japan’s first illuminated manhole covers using LEDs this year in Higashi-Tokorozawa. These shining manhole covers also help prevent crime by brightening up the streets.

Manhole covers with QR codes were installed as part of a test when developing the illuminated manhole covers. They feature a rainbow design to confirm that they can produce many different colors. (Photo provided by the Tokorozawa City Waterworks Bureau)

   Tsukuba City is home to the JAXA Tsukuba Space Center. The region-specific manhole cover for this city features a design with motifs of the Earth, Mount Tsukuba (also a site for weather observation), and the Space Shuttle. The city has named itself “International City Tsukuba” and was the first location in Japan to distribute English versions of manhole cards.

A designer manhole cover and an English-version manhole card with unique characteristics from Tsukuba, a city that produced many Japanese astronauts. (Photo provided by Tsukuba City)

There Are Many Popular Characters on Japan’s Manhole Covers!

   Popular characters known by everyone in Japan transform into region-specific manhole covers to bring fun to people walking in the street. Tama City developed a motif with Hello Kitty, because it has a theme park where you can meet the character. In Yokohama City, Pikachu from the popular Pokémon games transformed into a manhole cover designed with scenery from Yokohama. Since last year, this manhole cover Pikachu has welcomed tourists at Sakuragi-cho Station Square. In Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward, you can see Astro Boy and other characters from the Astro Boy series on the streets.

© 1976, 2020 SANRIO CO., LTD. APPROVAL NO. L618065

© 2020 Pokémon. © 1995-2020 Nintendo/Creatures Inc./GAME FREAK inc.

© Tezuka Productions

Manhole Covers for Sports Teams Have Also Appeared

   Japan has manhole covers for many different sports teams as well. In Hiroshima City, there are manhole covers installed with a motif featuring Carp Boy, a character for the professional baseball team Hiroshima Carp, for people visiting the team’s home ground, Mazda Stadium. In Yokohama City, Marinos-kun, the character for the professional soccer team Marinos, guides people with arrows from the nearest station to the team’s home ground, Nissan Stadium.

This design features Carp Boy and maple leaves. (Photo provided by the Hiroshima City Waterworks Bureau)

This Marinos manhole cover guides you to the stadium. © 1992 Y.MARINOS

“Manhole Cover Summits” Let People Enjoy Everything about Manhole Covers

(Top left) Popular manhole cards. (Top right) A manhole cover viewing session. (Bottom left) Dorayaki sweets with designer manhole cover patterns. (Bottom right) A barbecue using a manhole cover. (Photo provided by the Sewer Public Information Platform (GKP))

   In Japan, “Manhole Cover Summits” are held for manhole cover fans, known as “manholers” in Japanese, to gather together. These events serve as a place for people to discuss their love for manhole covers, and manhole-related products are on sale too. You can join a barbeque using a real manhole cover, or go on a tour of the sewer facility. These manhole-oriented events are held annually with huge attendance, and you can apparently also see manhole cover fans coming from overseas every year. The Sewer Public Information Platform (GKP) works together with the local government to issue manhole cards. GKP has made the following comment: “We hope people’s enjoyment of designer manhole covers prompt them to look at the world below these covers. We want to convey the message to many individuals about the value of the sewer system that supports people’s lifestyles by making water clean as a part of social infrastructure, and that brings contributions to environmental conservation, energy, and other areas.”

Japan’s Manhole Covers Have Garnered Keen Interest from Abroad Too

   This manhole cover culture from Japan has spread abroad as well. According to one account, tourists visiting Japan from Thailand were surprised at the practicality of manhole covers in Japan with pictures of fire trucks to serve as a guide for the locations of fire hydrants. These tourists are said to have developed region-specific manhole covers in their home country as a result.
When you come to Japan, why not visit the designer manhole covers from different regions?