Now that I’d made my mistakes and realised how to get a manhole card, I was determined to get my first one quickly. A lot of people had given a portion of their life to indulge this new hobby in one way or another, so I wanted to make sure it hadn’t all been in vain. I jumped online and began to search for my first card. Of the Tokyo batch, a certain one caught my eye—a baby pink lid featuring the adorable cartoon monkey “Monchhichi.” When I saw that this card was available in Shibamata—a place I’d been coveting for some time—I made a resolution to go. Minutes later, I’d enlisted my pal Kiki in the day trip and entered the planning phase. Ie. do not stuff this up AGAIN.
Despite what my initial scattergun approach to manhole card collecting may suggest, I can get type-A when I need to. I was once so confused by 10 Airbnb options for a group trip that I made a comparative spreadsheet which detailed the differences and counted votes. In this case, I wanted to make sure we’d get the card, find the manhole and visit the ‘must-sees’ of Shibamata before we had to get back to relieve Kiki’s dogsitter. Sounds easy, right? Well, it would have been, if Shibamata wasn’t so friggin’ amazing.
A little about Shibamata
Shibamata is located in Katsushika Ward, a 25-minute train ride east of Asakusa. It sits on the banks of the Edogawa (Edo River) with Chiba prefecture on the other side; as such, it is literally on the eastern edge of Tokyo. It’s what’s known as a ‘Shitamachi’, or downtown, neighbourhood. As is the case with these neighbourhoods, everything centres around the main shopping street. And in my research, I learned that this one was a good one with plenty of unique snacks and experiences to check out.
The neighbourhood is also widely known as the home of this guy:
Tora-san is the main character in the Guinness World Record-holding film franchise ‘Otoko wa tsurai yo’, or ‘It’s hard being a man.’ This lovelorn travelling salesman graced screens from 1969 to 1995, all the while romanticising his hometown of Shibamata. So much so, that the town has become a household name and even features a statue, merchandise and a museum about old mate.
Arriving in Shibamata
After a slow start, I met Kiki on the train and began the hour-plus journey to Shibamata, filling her in on all the things we were about to see. When we arrived, the bronze statue of Tora-san greeted us and we stopped for a few pictures before continuing our mission.
We were standing in the street, adjusting cameras and checking Google maps, when a lady from a nearby souvenir store wandered over with a map, asking where we wanted to go. “Actually, uh..” I started, “We’re looking for a…manhole card?” Her reaction was quick and intense. She barked with laughter, slapped her thigh and exclaimed “MANHORU KADO?!”. Suddenly we were all laughing. She wiped the tears from her eyes and told us to go to the info centre a few doors up. As we reached the doorway, with no word of a lie, we could still hear her laughing to herself.
Getting our Manhole Cards
We wandered in and the staff member adjusting brochures turned to greet us. “Anou…”, I proceeded, “…manhoru kado ga arimasuka?” (translation: Um, do you have manhole cards?). She looked like she had received a small zap, her eyes widening. It was clearly not what she expected us to say. ‘Oh, yes we do!’ she exclaimed, rushing behind the counter. She reached down to get two cards, placed them on the blue plastic change tray and slid it toward us.
I really can’t remember the last time I got so excited about such a small thing. You know what they say about small minds, I presume? The next minute or so was kind of a blur, but I was sure to let her know it was our first card and that we were so happy. She even let me take a photo of her presenting the card to me.
Monkeying about, Monchhichi style
We had a whole day ahead of us but I already needed to sit down and collect myself. Across from the tourist information centre, we sat down for a celebratory late morning beer and edamame. The old man at the table beside us gave us a knowing nod—we knew how to Saturday. Over our snack, we studied our cards and talked Monchhichi.
This little monkey character was first created by a local Katsushika ward company called Sekiguchi co. It began with the stuffed toys in 1974 and soon grew to global fame when they were picked up by Mattel in the US. They even had TV shows made in the US and France.
As such, it’s no surprise that this local monkey was chosen as the manhole design for Katsushika ward. The Information Center staff also told us to look out for the Monchhichi designed bus, souvenirs and even the Monchhichi Park which was the site of the former factory.
From googling the map coordinates on the front of the card, we saw that the actual colourful manhole lid was kind of far away—at Shin-Koiwa Train Station. That’s 33 minutes by public transport or an hour’s walk, for those playing at home. We’re no strangers to long rambles so thought we’d be fine as long as we kept an eye on the time. The only problem was…we had no idea how much we would want to stay and enjoy Shibamata.
Standing up from our morning beer, we were positively giddy. The large gate signifying the start of the town’s shopping street stood ahead but our eyes were drawn to an old-fashioned lolly shop to its left. Inside was an absolute carnival. Arcade games, floor to ceiling lollies, retro imagery and a shooting gallery. We regressed to children for a spell, and Kiki let her Texas out to play, unfortunately missing every shot at the shooting gallery.
Next, we explored the Taishakuten Sando (帝釋天参道), or approach to Taishakuten Temple. This charming street is something straight out of the Edo period (1603-1868). It’s a short 200m but feels much longer due to the abundance of old fashioned shops selling senbei (rice crackers), soba (noodles), sweets (…candy) and souvenirs (…still going, er..nic nacs). There’s also, supposedly, great unagi (eel) here. As it’s endangered and I feel weird about eating it, I looked elsewhere for my next snack.
My eye happened to land upon an elderly gentleman spinning kusa-dango (mugwort dumplings) on a tiny grill.
These mochi get their colour and flavour from yomogi (Japanese mugwort) which I think tastes similar to shiso or mint. They also feature on the famous tri-coloured sanshoku dango.
Kusa-dango is a popular snack in Shibamata and typically sold topped with anko (red bean paste). Mine, though, came fresh off the grill, rolled in flaked seaweed. Hot, chewy, salty, sea-flavoured…who’s with me?!
We happened to be visiting Shibamata on a Sunday, which meant we could see the candy makers at Matsuya no ame do their thing. The two chefs rhythmically tap their cleavers on the chopping board and eventually feed the length of candy along, snipping it into bite-sized pieces. The rhythm draws a crowd and has earned it (and Shibamata) a place among the 100 soundscapes of Japan—one of only four in Tokyo.
Founded almost 400 years ago in 1629, this Buddhist Temple is the heart of the neighbourhood. At its entrance stands the Zuiryu-no-matsu pine tree, said to be around 500 years old—perhaps the reason the temple was built here. Inside the main hall, we stare in disbelief at the intricate wood carvings seemingly on every surface. A long-haired Japanese guy catches our eye and grins cheekily as he points above our heads. A giant oni (devil) design stares back.
Back outside, we head behind the main hall and pay 400 yen to access Soshido Hall and its Japanese garden. This ticket also gives access to the ‘wood carving gallery’ which we thought we’d seen already. How wrong we were.
The garden is an ‘important cultural asset’—of which there are many in Japan—and makes for a peaceful stroll.
Next on our tour were the famous 3D wood carvings completed between 1922 and 1934. If I wasn’t left so speechless, I would summarise them in a word. Our experience was further elevated by one of the Buddhist monks who chanted along to a rhythmic instrument. By this point, we were pinching ourselves. Where were all the tourists…?
Yamamoto-tei tea house
Our next stop was the Yamamoto-tei tea house, last renovated in 1930, a short walk through some residential backstreets. We paid a tiny 100 yen entrance fee and ordered some tea and snacks at the counter, before snagging a table in a room with a garden view. Our quiet conversation is gently interrupted by the sound of stringed instruments from the next room. I wander over to find a full performance taking place. Another pinch.
Back at our table, we do a little people watching. Ahead of us, a couple on a date sit side by side, kneeling at their low table, both quietly reading. The girl is bolt upright, holding her book with two hands, while her date reads one-handed, the other hovering a millimetre off her waist.
By this point we were already past our deadline but there was so much more we wanted to see. We figured we should just choose the most important thing to us, which happened to be the Yagiri-no-Watashi, a ferry dating back to the Edo Period (1603-1868). The sound of this creaky boat that transports people across the Edo River between Tokyo and Chiba, is another honourable mention in the soundscapes of Tokyo list. We arrive to find we’ve just missed a boat, but can luckily hear the creaky sounds of the captain steering it for a minute or so, until it rows out of earshot.
Completing the mission: finding the manhole
As we no longer had an hour to stroll across town to the manhole, Kiki suggested a taxi. Both decadent and necessary. We zoomed past countless amazing shops and neighbourhoods—all earmarked for a future visit—finally arriving at Shin-Koiwa Station. We hunted around the station’s bus zone until we saw the pink Monchhichi lid on the pavement, right in front of a shop’s entrance.
It was the moment of truth, where I’d take my first card+manhole shot for Instagram. We took turns shooting photos and videos while a stream of pedestrians flowed around us, wondering what the big deal was. Finally, we started our hour long return, to rescue Kiki’s dogsitter from the rescue dog’s separation anxiety.
I was content, not only in finally getting a manhole card but for having found a great new place to recommend to visiting friends and family. As I rode the rails home, all I could think about was where my next manhole hit would come from.
Manhole Card Address: Shibamata Tourist Info Center
Ask: “Manhouru kado ga arimasuka?” (マンホールカードがありますか？)
Manhole Location: In front of this building.
Distance between: Roughly 5.5km (~1 hour walk or 35min walk to Koiwa Station and 3mins/1 stop to Shin Koiwa Station