Pretty and Practical: Japanese Manhole Covers

japanese manhole


All you city mice out there know that there are some breathtaking urban lifestyle sights to be seen (ever seen the Eiffel Tower lit up on a clear summer night?).

You also know that living in a confined space crammed with humans can mean that some of those sights can be vomit-worthy. Ever see and smell the trash lined up in the LES?

To live in the city is to be surrounded by beauty and filth in equal measure. But in Japan they’re finding ways to turn the tide in beauty’s favor. They’ve figured out how to inject some added visual interest to their streets by literally turning functional manhole covers into works of art that adorn the sidewalks and streets. The result is inspiring, both in the city’s commitment to transforming something ordinary and functional into something visually appealing, as well as the artwork itself.

The Japan City of Manhole Covers (real organization) reports that there are currently over 6,000 of the decorated manholes scattered around the country. Out of 1,780 municipalities in the country, 95% of them have decorated manholes that they have chosen to represent their individual cities. The concept most likely began back in 1985, when a businessman who worked in the construction ministry witnessed public resistance when the communities outside of the urbanized cities were slated to undergo expensive sewage upgrade projects. In order to get the communities on board and raise awareness of the project, a series of contests were started that quickly spiraled into something much bigger, and the results are truly lovely. Municipalities actually compete with each other to see who can create the best ones.

The most popular artwork categories are trees, landscapes, birds, and floral designs, which bring a little taste of nature into the streets. Some are colorful, and they are all intricately detailed. Those of us who don’t live in Japan are afforded the opportunity to sneak a peek at the artwork; the manhole covers have become a popular subject to photograph.

Photographer S. Morita has been traveling around for the past few years collecting photos of the detailed manholes (which you can check out at MRSY on Flickr), and Remo Camerota has a book dedicated to the subject cleverly entitled Drainspotting.

So much fun! It’s like each town has a personalized sidewalk tattoo. Why isn’t my city doing this? Why aren’t they all doing this?

(Hint, hint, LA.)

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