Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Unexpected Joy of Japanese Manhole Cover Art

-- Susan, Every Other Sunday

As the summer of 2020 breathes its last, insanely hot and humid gasps here in Japan, my thoughts have shifted forward into autumn. While this year won't be the same as the ones that went before, I'm hoping to have the chance to spend some time on the road (technically, the rails) and in the mountains I love so much.

My thoughts, looking through the darkness into autumn.

While I wait, I'm looking through old photographs and enjoying the memories of travels past, as well as re-exploring some of the things I love most about Japan.

One case in point: manhole cover art.

Yep. "Just" a manhole cover.

In the parts of the United States I've lived in, manhole covers are generally functional--pressed metal discs engraved with the name or initials of the municipal district responsible for maintaining what lies beneath. For the most part, passersby barely notice them (and, all things being equal, prefer it that way) except when workmen access them and block the road.

In Japan, however, even the manhole covers have succumbed to the Japanese tendency to transform ordinary objects into works of art. This is true not only in Tokyo, where the various wards all have their own designs, but in the smaller cities, and even the countryside.

Manhole cover celebrating traditional courtly dance.

Sometimes, the designs are unexpectedly whimsical:

This town is not on the ocean, so I never did figure out what the whale symbolizes.

But in most places, the images depict something the location is famous for,

Spring flowers in Nakatsugawa

or a historical event or practice.

While walking the Nakasendo through the mountainous Kiso Valley last November, the covers celebrated the region's centuries of history as an important travel route:

Ochiai sits along a river that once served as a transport artery.

Bonus points for positioning the manhole where the shadows of the trees it celebrates fall on the ground around it.

Celebrating the heavily burdened porters and standard bearers of the travel road.

When I travel now, I find myself looking for the manhole covers, eager to see the next work of art and what it says about how the city, town, or village sees itself--an unexpected mirror in the mundane.

If you visit Japan (and travel is beginning to open up again here, so I trust that eventually the opportunity will come) be sure to look down occasionally while you're walking.

One of Hiroshige's famous "Views of the Nakasendo" transformed into a manhole cover near the start of the travel road.

You just might find an unexpected masterpiece.


  1. These are wonderful, Annamaria -- really gorgeous. Hope you're doing great.

    1. Aren't they gorgeous, Tim! But they are not mine. Susan gave us these marvels to admire. I wish I had something so uplifting to offer this week.

      Susan, I LOVE these, especially the one in color! I am sorry I didn't look at them when I was in Japan. But I think I would have to be the a year and a half before my head stopped spinning with the beauty at and above eye level. You KNOW I took a hundred photos an hour and never looked down!!

  2. Once again you wow me, Susan, with your own eye for detail and art! Growing up in Pittsburgh, we were just happy to see the manholes covered.