Whenever I need to go out these days, I always check to see if there’s a manhole card near my destination. On the final stretch of our Yamanote Line walk (a 32km loop around Tokyo that we broke up into 4 walks), I found an Ikebukuro manhole card near our finishing point: Ikebukuro Station.
If you’re clever, you’ll surmise that this would also have been the starting point of the walk, however, in the beginning, I was way too excited to think about manhole cards. I was just pumped to get out of the apartment and see other humans. Masked, distanced, sanitised and shivering-cold humans, that is.
Still riding high from getting an Astro Boy card on the previous walk, we strolled the final stretch from Ueno Station to Ikebukuro Station, with a brief side-pop to the fabulous Yanaka Ginza where we enjoyed a little outdoor tachinomi (stand-up drinking sesh).
Toshima and the Ikebukuro manhole
Ikebukuro is not one of my usual haunts; it’s hailed as a bit of an Akihabara-esque hub where otaku and geeks (no shade) can fulfil their most animated desires. It’s also a little out of my way which means it’s also out of mind. For those who’ve never been to Ikebukuro before, you might be surprised to learn that it’s the second busiest station after Shinjuku! It’s clear I’ve been sleeping on it, but Tokyo sure hasn’t.
We arrived in Ikebukuro in the late afternoon and made our way straight to the Toshima Civic Center which is home to lots of cultural programs and facilities. It seems that Toshima-ku (the ward in which Ikebukuro is located) is all about arts and culture—including anime. In fact, the city website touts itself as “A theatre city where the entire city is the stage and everyone can play a leading role.”
We accidentally entered via a side entrance and a kind security guard ushered us to the right area—just inside this main entrance. We got our free collector cards and read about the design.
As the card explains, the manhole design was unveiled in 2020, making this one of the newer cards to be released. While there are thousands of manhole designs across Japan, not all of them have a collector’s card attached and new sets are released periodically to keep collectors on their toes. At last count, there were just over 700.
Of anime, theatre and anthropomorphic owls
Manhole designs are supposed to represent the area in which they appear, so what does this design say about Ikebukuro? At first glance, I see anime and a stage, but there’s a little more to it than that.
According to the description on the card, the design was created by ‘Ikebukuro PR Anime’ in association with Toshima Ward and ‘Animate’, an anime store founded in Ikebukuro, to promote the charm of Ikebukuro and its sewage system. This made me realise I’m always quick to talk about the charms of a neighbourhood but neglect to include those of the sewage system. Sorry, not sorry!
The card goes on to explain that the design actually comes from a short animated video where a girl follows an anthropomorphic owl character on a journey through Ikebukuro, visiting sites such as the Hareza Ikebukuro theatre, Ikebukuro’s four parks and the red, electric ‘IKEBUS’. Check it out:
A little digging online tells me that Toshima Ward happens to be shaped like an owl with its wings spread. As such, you’ll find plenty of owl motifs around the place, including an owl police box and an owl statue at Ikebukuro Station’s east exit. The statue is punnily named ‘Ikefukuro’, as the Japanese word for owl is ‘fukuro’.
Of course, I didn’t know this fantastic owl trivia at the time, so we were more focused on the Mister Donut store than on bird watching. Turns out I managed to spot one without knowing, sitting on top of the IKEBUS timetable sign.
You may have noticed I named this post “Dipping my beak in Ikebukuro” as a nod to the owls, but it’s also a metaphor for sex, drinking and profit-sharing among gangsters. I mean, I had a great time in Ikebukuro, but that definition doesn’t quite match my experience. Unless you count the street drinking, that is. For those who don’t know, drinking alcohol on the street is legal in Japan. Legal, yes. Trashy, ayup. But…Covid-safe? Sure*.
*Having said that, the most recent set of rules for the fourth wave of COVID-19 in Tokyo includes a request for people to limit their street drinking. I can’t help but feel targeted.
Anyway, after getting the card, we wandered a few blocks to Sunshine-dori, where we spotted the manhole!
There they are—our friends from the video! If you’re familiar with manholes by now, you might notice that the design has a printed/laminated look to it, rather than the older paint-filled designs.
Unfortunately, we didn’t stick around Ikebukuro long, we were ready to hang up our walking shoes for a while. If you go in search of the manhole card, be sure to keep an eye out for the owls and the ‘Ikebus’—we sadly never saw it!
Manhole Card Address: Toshima Civic Center, Ikebukuro
Nearest Stations: JR Ikebukuro Station
Ask: “Manhouru kado ga arimasuka?” (マンホールカードがありますか？)
Manhole Location: out front of this building on Sunshine-dori.
Distance between card and hole: a few minutes on foot.
More info: here, on Toshima City’s website (in Japanese)
*note: this information may change; always best to check here.
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