You Can Own a Piece of Japan’s Elaborate Manhole Art

Demand for the nation's intricate sewage lids have previously inspired a line of collectible cards and an annual "manhole summit."

Kyoto, the Japanese city often referred to as the country’s cultural capital, is renowned for its historic temples, its unique gardens—and its manhole covers. Unlike most sewage covers across the globe, Japan’s manhole lids are an unusual canvas for original artwork. Fans of the elaborately decorated covers, a group known as “drainspotters” or “manholers,” can now get their hands on three historic models, as Kyoto’s municipal government is, for the first time, offering up the covers to the public.

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Manhole with painting of Mount Fuji on it
Japan’s manholes feature complex designs, colorful paintings and depictions of pop culture. Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The intricate lids have long been a source of revenue for Japan’s sewer system and a tourism draw. In response to rising interest in the covers as a collectible item, Kyoto is now putting three different obsolete versions, manufactured in 1978, 1981 and 1990, up for sale, according to The Mainichi Shimbun. While new maintenance hole lids typically cost around 60,000 yen ($400), the city’s municipal government will sell the covers for only 5,500 yen ($37) each.

The iron lids, which weigh up to 90 kg, feature designs specific to Kyoto. One displays a pattern of “court carriage” wheels, while the others show the city’s emblem at the center. As the covers have been in use for more than 30 years, they also exhibit signs of wear.

Why does Japan have such intricate manhole covers?

Custom manhole designs can be found in 95 percent of Japan’s municipalities and often contain references to the specific region’s history and culture. Even Kyoto University has its own sewage cover, complete with the institution’s abbreviation in Japanese. Hello Kitty designs are on manholes across Tama City, while Osaka’s include depictions of its famous castle. And in Hiroshima, the city’s baseball team has been honored on the iron slabs. The practice can be traced back to the 1980s, when Japan introduced the unusual works of art as a public relations move promoting the modernization of its sewer system.

Manhole cover with colorful green floral design around its sides
A manhole cover in Kawaguchi, Saitama prefecture. AFP via Getty Images

Pokemon-designed manhole covers, known as “pokefuta” or “Poke Lids,” were recently introduced in rural regions a way to attract tourists. Some covers, painted with fluorescent characters, glow in the night to help prevent crime. And last year, a sewage company and a nonprofit teamed up to launch a photography contest challenging residents of Japan’s Kanto region to see who could upload the most images of different manhole covers in the area, which helped the municipality locate aging local manholes in need of replacement.

Demand for the manhole covers has even led to merchandising opportunities. With permission from local sewage departments, apparel brand Japanese Underground reproduced the manhole designs of Japan’s 47 prefectures on a line of t-shirts and tote bags. And in 2016, a consortium of local governments and Japan’s sewage department launched collectible cards featuring the various lids. The first release of cards was offered at Japan’s manhole summit, an annual event for manhole enthusiasts which held its 10th edition last November at a former sewage treatment facility in the city of Tokorozawa.

Hand reaches out over spread of collectible cards with manholes on them
A collection of manhole cover cards. AFP via Getty Images

Kyoto isn’t the first city to take advantage of the surge in interest in sewage lids. The municipal government of Akita has held at least three sales of its manhole covers over the years, most recently offering 10 lids for sale in 2022. And in the central Japanese city of Maebashi, an outpouring of interest in available manhole covers in 2017 led to the creation of a lottery for the lids. This is also being considered as an option in Kyoto, where a drawing is planned if the available manhole covers receive too many offers. A successful turnout will also likely lead the city, which has around 160,000 maintenance holes, to sell off more sewage covers in the future.

You Can Own a Piece of Japan’s Elaborate Manhole Art