One of the coolest attraction in Japan lies beneath the feet. All across the country, manhole covers are custom made for individual towns and cities and they are colorfully painted. Designs ranges from images of cultural history, from flora and fauna, to landmarks and local festivals, to fanciful images dreamed up by school children.
The trend started in the 1980s when Japan wanted to standardize their sewer system. Until then, Japan used regular geometric shaped manhole covers similar to those used in other countries. As communities outside of Japan's major cities were slated to receive new sewer systems these public works projects were met with resistance. One dedicated bureaucrat solved the problem by allowing the town folk to choose their own design. Today nearly 95 percent of the 1,780 municipalities in Japan sport their own specially designed manhole covers.
The art of manhole covers has now reached the point of a national obsession in Japan with numerous municipal departments competing against each other in the pursuit of the perfect manhole cover. The designs are manufactured by a municipal foundry where they are cast and created. The city or council will submit ideas and the symbol of choice to the foundry and their in-house designers will then create a design based on these specifications, going back and forth until the design is approved. The foundry will then cast a prototype before doing the final cast. These manhole covers are made of metal, as opposed to European manhole covers, which are typically constructed of pre-cast concrete. After the covers have been cast the carved wooden masters are saved in an enormous central library.
One of the first books celebrating this unique form of art is Drainspotting, penned by Remo Camerota. The English book published a few years back details the history of these manholes, along with several pictures of some of the best designs.