Japanese Puzzle Boxes


Japanese puzzle boxes are secret boxes made from wood. Normally there's a lid that's obscured, and can only be released by someone who knows how to complete a puzzle of use a particular mechanism on the box itself. Many times, the trick to undo the box's lid will be a simple move, such as sliding it's lid one way or another. Other boxes may require a much more intricate movement of various parts of the box, maybe even revealing an inner compartment within the box itself.

The Origins of the Japanese Puzzle Box

Japanese puzzle boxes first appeared in Japan in the Hakone region in the mid 19th century. Originally they were called "Onsen Miage Hakone-sou"  which means ‘Hakone Hotspring souvenirs’. They were also referred to as 'Sikake-Bako' or 'Tie-Bako'. The word "Tie" means wisdom, or an idea or intelligence. "Sikakae" means a trick or device.

These boxes became very popular with the workers from the shipyards and general workers and were used to carry tools and keep them from theft. This worked well, as only the box's owner knew the trick needed to open them. In the beginning, they were manufactured with simple combination, but as time passed and these boxes became more popular, then the locking mechanisms grew more and more complicated. The town of Hakone was an interchange station on the largest road to Tokyo, and as such enjoyed a great deal of tourism. Many puzzle boxes were bought as souvenirs.

The Iconic Japanese Puzzle Box Design

The mountains around the town of Hakone are famous for their large variety of different types of trees. These give the boxes their different combinations of wood colours, along with different textures and finishes. The intricate and elaborate patterns that cover these boxes are called Yosegi-Zaiku, which is the name given to small woodwork mosaics usually found on handicrafts. These mosaics are made by laying many different coloured woods together and then cutting across, for a sectional surface of thin plates of multicooured wood. By careful layering, they can form landscapes such as Mount Fuji, Mountains and lakes. Once completed, a layer of lacquer is applied to add strength and protection to the box.

During the Meiji Period  (1868-1912), the first Himitsu-Bako, was created by three craftsmen. Tatsunosuke Okiyama, Takajiro Ohkawa, and Mr Kikukawa developed the first puzzle box with Yosegi-Zaiku panelling. Himitsu-Bako means "secret box". These three men are regarded as the first generation Himitsu-Bako Master Craftsman.

Making a Japanese Puzzle Box

Because of the nature of the puzzle boxes sliding wooden mechanisms, they are extraordinary difficult to craft. Because they depend on sliding parts and friction, they are notoriously difficult to make without being either too tight or conversely, too loose. If they're too tight then opening them is problematic. And too loose means that the puzzle aspect is lost. 

Today, the boxes are made exclusively by Himitsu-Bako craftsmen. The wood is selected and then allowed time to thoroughly dry. Then the wood is cut and crafted, with a great deal of testing with the actual puzzle mechanics to ensure they cannot be cheated. The final process is the application of the Yosegi-Zaiku to the outside of the box. Since their original production, no records or drawing of these boxes has ever been made. To that end, the Himitsu-Bako Master craftsmen take on apprentices to learn their trade.Thanks to each box being hand made and unique, their are few suppliers and they are not only rare, but expensive.

How To Solve a Japanese Puzzle Box

The words "sun" and "steps" are used to describe a traditional Japanese puzzle box. The "sun" is the traditional Japanese measurement and is used to describe the length and width of the box. One Sun equals around 3 centimetres. So a "5 sun box" would be around 15 centimetres in length. A puzzle box is normally between 3 to 6 sun's lengths. When it comes to opening the bx, you may have to go through between 4 to 66 separate moves. Some larger boxes may require even more. The actual record for number of movements required to open a box is an astounding 1,536. If these steps are not followed in an exact order, then the box will not open. These steps may be linear or non linear. Essentially this means that after the first step, the second step may not be obvious.

Japanese puzzle boxes are extremely delicate and require careful care and attention to keep them functional. They need to be kept under special conditions to avoid the wood swelling and making them impossible to open. Puzzle boxes are much more than a simple entertainment. With expert craftsmanship, they are a wonderful means of storing things in secret. Today, they are regarded as a wonderful gift and continue to be a very popular souvenir.

More articles

The Best Escape Rooms in Las Vegas The Best Escape Rooms in Las Vegas

With Sin City being one of the major entertainment hubs in the United States, it's no surprise that they're a huge number of escape room games to be played. When you finish at the gaming tables of the casino resorts, but haven't spent all your bankroll, then get yourself to an escape room.

Reasons Why Employees Hate HR Reasons Why Employees Hate HR

You might be surprised as to how much employees hate human resources. And how deeply the feelings go. There are any number of reasons for this and some of them are logical and some not so much. Of the former, many employees have had bad experiences with HR teams. But we can't help but feel that one of the primary reasons for this ingrained dislike is simply ignorance.

Ford Makes A Mustang Mach-E Escape Room Game Ford Makes A Mustang Mach-E Escape Room Game

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last decade or so, then you're probably well aware of just how much of a success the whole genre of escape room games has been over the past twenty years. With teams of players in competition with each other to solve clues and escape from a theme room within a set time, they has become the go-to entertainment event for both teams of individuals and fa

First Metaverse Escape Room Launched First Metaverse Escape Room Launched

With the concept of the metaverse now enjoying its days of sun thanks mainly to Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook rebranding, it's not surprising to see how the concepts are affecting all sorts of real world businesses. And this of course includes escape room games. By allowing people to play using either AR or VR, then a new dimension to buy into the gameplay becomes available.

Show more