Drainspotting: 61 Amazing Manhole Covers from Japan


One of my favorite book discoveries this summer is Drainspotting by Remo Camerota. The book celebrates an array of fascinating manhole cover designs from Japan. According to Camerota, nearly 95% of the 1,780 municipalities in Japan have their very own customized manhole covers. The country has elevated this humble, practical object to its own art form. The designs depict everything from local landmarks and folk tales to flora and fauna and images created by school children.

Camerota explains the evolution of these custom covers in Drainspotting:

“In the 1980s as communities outside of Japan’s major cities were slated to receive new sewer systems these public works projects were met with resistance, until one dedicated bureaucrat solved the problem by devising a way to make these mostly invisible systems aesthetically appreciated aboveground: customized manhole covers.”

A manhole cover in Hiroshima decorated with a paper crane design (Photo source unknown)


(Photo courtesy Tokyo Five)


(Photo courtesy wired.com)


(Photo by Carlos Blanco via Flickr Commons)


(Photo by Toby Oxborrow via Flickr Commons)


(Photo by jpellgen via Flickr Commons)


As the book explains, design ideas for the specialized covers originate with the local city or council and are then presented to in-house designers at a municipal foundry. Once local officials and the designers agree upon an image, a prototype is created before the final manhole covers are cast in metal. Hirotaka Nagashima, the president of the Nagashima Foundry, explains the process in Drainspotting:

“We carve the design on a piece of wood. Next we put sand on the wood pattern and make a negative sand pattern; then we pour melted iron into the pattern, clear up the iron,…blast and paint the cover black. When we have colored ones they are done by hand and painted with a thick tree resin, colored from pigment. The tree resin sets rock hard and lasts much longer than paint.”

The Nagashima Foundry, which is the second largest in the country, makes about 400 manhole covers a day. The foundry has made over 6,000 different patterns in all. Not every design finds it way to the streets and sidewalks, however. In Camerota’s interview, Nagashima explains how one design of a shrine gate was abandoned when local priests objected. The priests did not believe it was appropriate for a sacred image of a shrine to be driven over and walked on.

A design for a new drain cover (Photo by Remo Camerota)


A Japanese foundry making manhole covers (Photo by Remo Camerota)


(Photo by Remo Camerota)


Pages from "Drainspotting" by Remo Camerota (Image courtesy Mark Batty Publisher)


Pages from "Drainspotting" by Remo Camerota (Image courtesy Mark Batty Publisher)


As the above images show, Drainspotting is a beautifully designed book. Camerota also writes a blog called Drainspotting, which serves as an online companion to the book.

I’ve also assembled this fascinating collection of Japanese manhole covers for you to peruse. Most of these images were taken by various photographers who are sharing their work through the Creative Commons on Flickr. The unattributed images are from Japanese websites. There is also a Japanese Manhole Cover Flickr Group with over 2,500 images, which is enough to keep an avid drainspotter busy for hours.

Perhaps it’s time for cities outside Japan to rethink their own drain-cover designs? This could be a great public art project in New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, or any other American city, and it would be fascinating to see the designs various artists created.


(Photo by Magalie L'Abbé via Flickr Commons)


(Photo by Carlos Blanco via Flickr Commons)


(Photo courtesy 1000 Things About Japan)


A drain in Kushiro, Hokkaido, which is near crane reserve (Photo by Janne Moran via Flickr Commons)


(Photo source unknown)


(Photo by Ville Misaki via Flickr Commons)


A Hachiko valve cover located near the famous Hachiko statue in Tokyo (Photo by jpellgen via Flickr Commons)


(Photo source unknown)


(Photo by Magalie L'Abbé via Flickr Commons)


(Photo by Carlos Blanco via Flickr Commons)


(Photo by Janne Moren via Flickr Commons)


(Photo by jpellgan via Flickr Commons)


Manhole Cover Near Keihan Rokujizo Station (Photo by jpellgen via Flickr Commons)


(Photo by Magalie L'Abbé via Flickr Commons)


(Photo by Toby Oxborrow via Flickr Commons)


A manhole cover at Disneyland in Tokyo (Photo by Xiaming via Flickr Commons)


(Photo by Akibubblet via Flickr Commons)


(Photo by Janne Moren via Flickr Commons)


(Photo by Peter Lynch via Flickr Commons)


Plain manhole covers are typically used in the street. Brightly colored versions cost more and are reserved for sidewalk use. (Photo by jpellgen via Flickr Commons)


The same manhole covered as pictured above, but in color (Photo by jpellgen via Flickr Commons)


(Photo source unknown)


A manhole cover in Osaka (Photo by Daiju Azuma via Flickr Commons)


(Photo source unknown)



To see more Japanese manhole covers, check out Remo Camerota’s book Drainspotting, now available as an eBook for iPad, iPod, and iPhone (or you can explore a print copy.)

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(Japanese manhole covers collected by Michelle Aldredge for Gwarlingo)

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.


  1. Ryan Wilson August 9, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    Wah! No one can beat the Japanese when it comes to aesthetics and a sense of beauty in all corners of life. I love these and now want to go live in Japan next simply so I can see these everyday.

  2. […] on Drainspotting: 61 Amazing Manhole Covers from Japan for background information and more […]

  3. Lunch Links | The Agitator August 22, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    […] Gallery of Japanese manhole covers. […]

  4. […] Aldredge introduces us to a minor feat in public […]

  5. john poch August 25, 2011 at 2:58 pm


    More of the above, only different.

    • Michelle Aldredge August 25, 2011 at 3:02 pm

      I love this, John. Thanks for passing it along!

  6. […] the place. Today, i discovered another reason Japan is cool: beautifully painted manhole covers. Check them out here. Cancel […]

  7. […] cover art that I thought people here might be interested in: An example: Here is the blog link: Drainspotting: 61 Amazing Manhole Covers from Japan | gwarlingo They made me think about cross walk lights I saw in Germany while backpacking a long time ago: […]

  8. […] Here is the blog link: Drainspotting: 61 Amazing Manhole Covers from Japan | gwarlingo […]

  9. Alan Paul August 26, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    Thanks for this. I posted and linked on my site… http://www.alanpaul.net.. the covers are fantastic and I had not seen them before.

    • Michelle Aldredge August 26, 2011 at 7:31 pm

      Thanks so much, Alan! I appreciate your spreading the word on your website. These manhole covers ARE incredible, aren’t they? I would love to see this idea transformed into a public art project in an American city at some point.

      I’m glad you visited Gwarlingo and hope you’ll share your comments again!

  10. France Stenberg August 31, 2011 at 11:05 am

    Lovely. The world would certainly look nicer if all manhole covers looked like these.

  11. Marilyn Degmetich September 15, 2011 at 10:17 pm

    Thanks for sharing what is beautiful. A simple drain cover is made to be a work of art! How amazing!!

    • Michelle Aldredge September 15, 2011 at 11:22 pm

      Thanks for your feedback, Marilyn. I’m glad you enjoyed the manhole cover article. I hope you’ll visit Gwarlingo again!

Comments are closed.