‘Drainspotting’ in Japan: The manhole form of art

*Drainspotting: Manhole covers and Japan’s urban art on the ground 


Japanese manhole covers, which come in a variety of designs depending on its location, use and manufacturer style, have caught the imagination of a growing number of “drainspotters” who come to Japan from all around the world. Moreover, this form of art has started to grow as a new kind of tourism, that has been called: drainspotting. Apparently, travellers attempt to see as many of Tokyo’s different manhole cover designs as possible (there are over 500,000 physical manholes just in Tokyo.)

Since it has been such a positive impact in Japanese society, Japanese municipalities decided to create the Japanese Society of Manhole Covers (日本マンホール蓋学会). They provide, throughout their website (in Japanese), a list of Japan’s estimated 6,000+ different kinds of manhole covers.

Manhole covers are a big deal and a way to contribute to something important in Japan. In fact, designs are often decided with public participation, or through competitions among manufacturers of manhole covers. Some of the designs portray delicate cherry blossoms and traditional pagodas, local landmarks, people, festivals or flora, cityscapes or traditional architecture. In addition, you can find more natural emblems, such as Mount Fuji, or fruits with smiling faces.

Japan’s manhole covers often include a symbol specific to an area or town as part of the overall design. For example, in Kora Town, Shiga, they feature a turtle (a symbol of wisdom and longevity) for the main motif, in addition to local landmarks, festivals, trees, myths, fireworks, boats, rivers, fish and sea creatures. Fairy tale elements, dinosaurs, anime characters, or icons can all be incorporated.” (Source)

The art of the manhole is definitely an innovative way to brighten up different urban areas and cheer up its citizens in a unique Japanese way. According to artist and photographer Remo Camerota (In his book: “Drainspotting”): “I endeavor to describe some of them in detail with their symbol, meaning and location. I became a drainspotter purely by chance. While photographing ‘Graffiti Japan’ I would encounter these wonderful pieces from town to town, and I often side-tracked from the graffiti to photograph these works of art, collecting them one by one, which turned out to be like a treasure hunt and an obsession wanting to collect them all.”


How do you feel about having different manhole designs in your country? Artistically speaking, I think it´s a great way not only to attract international tourism, but also to improve the artistic quality of some neighbourhoods adding glimpses of colour to the streets.


(images 1 | 2)


3 Replies to “‘Drainspotting’ in Japan: The manhole form of art”

  1. We don’t have all the color but we certainly could! Our town is quite a tourist spot for people from Chicago (we are in a Lake Michigan wine country area) and I’m sure our town would invest in a little more art! East Jordan Iron Works in Michigan has been famous for this kind of manhole cover for years.


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