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Street art: Japanese manhole covers

Artistic manhole covers
Artistic manhole covers 03:39

On the streets of Japan, if you spend too much time staring at your phone, you might just miss what's right under your feet. The Japanese have made the ordinary extraordinary, turning black metal manhole covers into well-rounded works of art.

Colorful designs adorn the lids to the sewers in towns across Japan, inspiring flocks of fans, called "manholers," to engage in manhole tourism. CBS News

One Japanese man said, "Our elders sweated and struggled to make manhole covers what they are today. We must appreciate what they did."

Hideto Yamada works for Hinode Suido, the largest manhole manufacturer in Japan. At their factory, molten metal is shaped into those familiar discs that thankfully put a lid on what is lurking down below in the sewer. 

They produce about 200 a day.

I think we have changed the image of manholes," Yamada said. "People from around the world think Japanese manhole covers are cool."

Japan earned that colorful reputation by filling in all those empty spaces on many of its manholes. 

There are now 6,000 different designs spread around the country.

Forging, then painting manhole covers at Hinode Suido. CBS News

One Japanese woman told Tracy that nowadays manhole cover design "seems to be the big thing."

That's right: manhole mania is sweeping japan. There are keychains and coasters, buttons and books. There are so many fans that there's now an annual manhole summit. 

Manhole cover designs on display. CBS News

The line was long early on a Saturday morning full of people who proudly call themselves "Manholers."

Hungry? Manholers can also get pancakes "hot off the lid." They are "quite delicious," according to three-year-old Mai Yoshimura.

Manhole pancakes made to order.  CBS News

Tracy asked one woman, "Are you surprised by how popular these manhole covers have become?"

"Yes," she replied. "It happened so suddenly."

A manhole cover in Fuji, Japan. CBS News

It actually began in the 1980s, when a Japanese bureaucrat figured that if manhole covers were more captivating, perhaps taxpayers would be more likely to support costly sewer projects.

Nearly every city and town in Japan now has its very own design, usually based on its claim to fame. Osaka has its castle; Kobe, its zoo. Of course, Fuji has its mountain. 

And, yes, "Hello Kitty" struts her stuff on the outskirts of Tokyo, in Tama City.

Manhole tourism is now a thing.

Tracy said to one young manholer, "The fact that you care this much about manhole covers means Japan is pretty cool."

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"Arigato gozaimasu!" he replied.

These customized covers cost up to $3,000 versus about $500 for the boring version. But it seems like money well spent. After all, it's cleaned up the image of the sewer.

"Japanese manholes reflect the Japanese mentality," said Yamada. "Even if it costs more, we want to make something beautiful."

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Story produced by Chris Laible and Lucy Craft.

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