Japanese Puzzle Boxes

2021.02.01.

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.
 

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