The Art of Drainspotting: What Is It?

  • SPOT
  • 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.

    The History of Manhole Covers

    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 that 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 embodied seasons, local landmarks and activities, and even mascot characters. The variety of designs that emerged gave birth to a whole new hobby that involved finding and documenting these manhole covers. This pastime is known as drainspotting.

    To celebrate the beauty of drainspotting, we are giving a sample of three gorgeous manhole covers that we hope can inspire you to take as many photos of the ground you are stepping on the next time you visit a new place in Japan:

    1. Sakura Manhole Cover

    Sakura Manhole

    Author’s photo

    The first manhole cover on our list 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) popular movie Your Name (Kimi no Na Wa; 君の名は), you will be able to catch a glimpse of this manhole cover since the movie is set partly in Shinjuku.

    2. Hitoyoshi City (人吉市) Manhole Cover

    Hitoyoshi Manhole

    Author’s photo

    Compared with the earlier manhole cover in Shinjuku, there are considerably more colors 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.

    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) that it became a full-fledged castle.

    The stone walls around the castle took 50 years to be built, and the castle was finally completed in 1639. However, it was damaged twice by fire, and almost all of the structures were destroyed. The Torasuke Fire of 1862 (寅助火事) was particularly devastating since it also burned most of the town. 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 little remains at the castle site. These exact walls are what we see in the manhole cover.

    Hitoyoshi City Website
    Hitoyoshi City Access

    3. Ōtsukyō Station (大津京駅) Manhole Cover

    Manhole 3

    Author’s photo

    The third manhole cover on our list has the most intricate design among the three manhole covers we have here. This one can be found right across from Ōtsukyō Station on the way to Ōjiyama Station (皇子山駅) in Ōtsu (大津市), the capital 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 see 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 on a special journey in Lake Biwa. The Michigan is also the first boat listed as a “Lover’s Sanctuary”, a romantic place recommended for couples who want to celebrate their love.

    One can also recognize Otsu Hikaru (おおつ光ル), Otsu’s official mascot, in the manhole cover. One of his hobbies is flower viewing (hanami), which is why he is depicted surrounded by cherry blossoms while writing poetry. Aside from the sakura, one can also appreciate the detailed lotus flowers that bloom in summer over Lake Biwa.

    Ōtsukyō Station Access


    There you have it! These are only a tiny fraction of the amazing manhole covers one can find in Japan. If they and their interesting stories have inspired you to become a “drainspotter”, then by all means enjoy this hobby! The greatest thing about “drainspotting” is that intricate manhole covers are not exclusive to Japan, so one can try to see which cities around the world have the best manhole cover designs during each vacation.