I stepped into the small Tourist Information Office at Hakuba Station and approached the counter. The elderly gentleman put his glasses on to see me more clearly. “Hai?” he asked. “Hello, uhh…do you have…manhole cards?” I asked, in Japanese. He frowned, leaned forward, ear first, prompting me to ask again. “Man..hole…card?” I said, feeling a flush creep up my neck. He called his colleague out for a second opinion, but she too had no idea what I was on about. I mean, I can’t blame them; I barely knew myself.
Just a few days earlier, I’d been researching an article about the specially designed manhole covers throughout Japan’s sewer systems when I came across a Japanese website regarding cute little collector cards featuring the designs. Unfortunately, I was running late for a Shinkansen to Hakuba for a weekend trip with friends and decided to shelf the topic for further investigation once I got home.
But it was too late. Those colourful cards had been incepted deep into my grey matter, right beside the tumour that’s apparently nothing to worry about. All afternoon, I was experiencing a kind of confirmation bias-adjacent attachment to manholes. Between my home and the Hakuba Air B’n’B, I couldn’t stop looking at the ground and proceeded to regale my friends with everything I knew about the covers and their corresponding cards. Lucky them, huh?
In search of manhole cards
Having not done my due diligence, I had no idea how much manhole cards cost let alone where or how to get them. I figured a Tourist Information Center would be a good place to start, which is how we came to make the strategic—albeit unfruitful—pop-in during our afternoon ramble.
The confused staff members at the station suggested I try the bigger Information Center, the one back towards our accommodation. They were quite sure I’d find my answer there.
As we trudged back, I tried to convince myself and the others that the second stop wasn’t necessary. I mean, what did I need a card for, anyway? I hadn’t collected anything since probably Tazos, Oddbodz or Pokemon Cards… literally DECADES earlier. I was just swept up in the moment. Besides, there was a bigger audience back at the house, no doubt waiting for part 2 of my drain lecture.
“Don’t be silly!” they insisted, “we’re going right by it; let’s check.”
Victim number two
The gals milled about as I approached my second unsuspecting victim, to ask about the existence of manhole cards which, by now, I was convinced were a myth. Amazingly, though, she knew what I was talking about. After making a phone call on my behalf (while I stood by, embarrassed), she explained that unfortunately, Hakuba didn’t have a card. Turns out not every town has one. I thanked her for her time and efforts when, mid-bow, she jumped excitedly and said she had something for me.
After rifling through every drawer in sight, she came back with this:
These “Yuru Chara Trading Cards” are similar to manhole cards but, instead, feature town mascots. And this one was Hakuba’s own Victoire Cheval Blanc Murao III, meaning ‘white horse of victory.’ The holographic horse card was a decent consolation prize. Later, at the afternoon cheese party—aka drain lecture 2.0—we passed it around, studying it in detail. Sadly, according to the card, Victoire only gets a 1/5 for cuteness. Neigh.
Third time’s a charm
These experiences made it clear that I couldn’t continue wandering around Japan, randomly asking for manhole cards, wasting people’s time. Research was essential if I ever hoped to crack the code. Therefore, I would go home, read up, form a plan and execute.
Except, I wouldn’t. Well, not yet, anyway.
We’d made a last-minute decision to stop in Nagano City on the way back to Tokyo and I figured I’d give it one last shot. It was the capital city of the prefecture, after all—they surely have a manhole card. Before checking out any sights, I ducked into the station’s Info Center.
The encounter went as you’ve now come to expect: I delivered my line, she hers. Nagano City didn’t have a manhole card, and she’d never seen the character cards before either. If I’ve learnt anything from watching baseball in Japan—besides what snacks to get—it’s that I’d just struck out. I tucked Victoire back into my wallet and left.
Actually helpful information about Manhole Cards
How much are manhole cards?
What I later learned through research is that manhole cards are free. This website lists all of them by prefecture, with pictures and pickup locations. Though it’s in Japanese, you can toggle between languages depending on your browser (I use Chrome).
How many manhole cards are there?
At the time of writing, there are just over 700 cards, with more being added periodically. This makes it tricky for collectors, but it is possible to purchase other people’s cards online through sites like Yahoo auctions or Mercari. Who knows…by the time you read this, Hakuba and Nagano may even have cards available.
Where do I get the manhole cards from?
Pick-up locations vary from Tourist Information Centers to City Halls, Museums or even Water Treatment Plants—the hole-y grail. You’ll find the addresses and opening hours of each place as well as information regarding whether the cards are in stock, the meaning behind the designs and where you can find the corresponding manhole(s) for a photo opportunity. Be warned though, it’s one card per person—no exceptions!
Simply go in, and ask: “manho-ru ka-do ga arimasuka?” and, presuming you’re in the right spot, they’ll hand one over.
How do I see more?
There is a huge community of ‘manholers’ (yes, that’s the actual term) online. Check out their endeavours via the hashtags: #マンホールカード (manhole card) or #マンホーラ (manholer). You can see some of mine via my Instagram or read more of my adventures on this very blog.