When we travel, we are always looking straight ahead at the sights, shops and people around us. But have you ever thought to take a look down at the ground? Don’t miss the unexpected works of art you can stumble upon in the form of unique Japanese manhole covers! Here is an introduction to three of Japan’s beautiful manhole covers you can find hiding beneath your feet.
In Japan, there are two kinds of manhole covers – one which serves as an access point to the sewerage system and another that is for firefighters to draw water from. It was not until the 1980s when a local official suggested letting municipalities customize their manhole covers to help the public appreciate their purpose. Since then, each municipality began giving an identity to their manhole covers through symbols that embody seasons, local landmarks and activities, and even mascot characters. The variety of designs that emerged gave birth to a whole new hobby of finding and documenting these manhole covers referred to as drainspotting.
The first manhole cover bears the image of the sakura, or cherry blossom, a flower associated with spring in Japan. This design is commonly found around Tokyo and this particular manhole cover can be found in Shinjuku (新宿区). If you watch Makoto Shinkai’s (新海誠) award-winning movie Your Name (Kimi no Na Wa; 君の名は), you will be able to catch a glimpse of this manhole cover as the movie is set partly in Shinjuku.
Compared with the earlier manhole cover in Shinjuku, there is considerably more color and symbols in this manhole cover found in Hitoyoshi City in the Kumamoto prefecture (熊本県). There are two notable symbols in this design: the Kuma River (球磨川) and the Hitoyoshi Castle Ruins (人吉城跡).
The Kuma River that runs through Hitoyoshi is considered one of the three fastest rivers in Japan. River rafting is a popular attraction with two courses to choose from: a three-hour all round course and a 90-minute fighter course. Both courses will have a guide to make sure you have a safe and exciting outdoor adventure.
The Hitoyoshi Castle once served as the residence of the Sagara clan (相良藩) who governed Hitoyoshi. Its foundation was said to have been built in the early Kamakura period (1193-1333) but it was not until the Muromachi period (around 1470) when it became a full-fledged castle.
The stone walls around the castle took 50 years in construction and it was completed in 1639. However, the castle was damaged twice by fire and almost all of the structures were destroyed particularly by the Torasuke Fire (寅助火事) that also burned most of the town in 1862. Part of the walls were reconstructed a year later using the Hanedashi method of construction. The overhanging ramparts built to protect the castle from future fires are what remains at the castle site. These exact walls are what we see in the manhole cover.
The third manhole cover has the most intricate design among the three manhole covers we have here. This can be found right across from Ōtsukyō Station on the way to Ōjiyama Station (皇子山駅) in Ōtsu (大津市), capital city of Shiga Prefecture (滋賀県).
The background of this manhole cover is mainly in the color blue representing Lake Biwa (琵琶湖), Japan’s largest lake. The symbols in this cover highlight some of the activities you can do at Lake Biwa. Among these are the different water sports such as kayaking, yachting and windsurfing. In summer, you can watch Lake Biwa Great Fireworks Festival (びわこ大花火大会) that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Another must-see is the Lake Biwa Flower Fountain (びわこ花噴水) which is illuminated right after sunset.
In the center of the manhole cover is the Michigan Cruise. This popular four-level cruise ship takes you to cruise in Lake Biwa. The Michigan is also the first boat listed as a “Lover’s Sanctuary”, a romantic place recommended for lovers.
You will also recognize Otsu Hikaru (おおつ光ル), Otsu city’s official mascot, in the manhole cover. One of his hobbies is flower viewing and we see him surrounded by cherry blossoms while writing poetry. Aside from the sakura, we also see the lotus flowers that bloom in summer over Lake Biwa.
Seek out these manhole covers on your next trip to Japan! Each of them is a work of art with countless stories waiting to be discovered. It is up to us, travelers and drainspotters alike, to discover them.
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