Have you ever seen a box that requires more effort than just opening the lid to access its contents? A seemingly impenetrable receptacle with many moving parts, yet reveals nothing? Then you’ve seen a Japanese puzzle box.
To the undiscerning eye a Japanese puzzle box may look a little mundane, yet these inconspicuous containers hide immense ingenuity and craftsmanship that has survived for over 100 years. For all that time these contraptions have kept safe the personal secrets and valuables for generations that can be far more secure than a lock and key, whilst also becoming intriguing brain teasers for many others.
They can be both incredibly satisfying as well as absolutely infuriating, but it’s what makes them so fascinating. These are marvels of Japanese craft that are accessible to anyone; for that reason, let’s take a look into the world of Japanese puzzle boxes and where you can get one.
What are they?
Also known as Himitsu-Bako, these puzzle boxes first appeared in Hakone around the end of the Edo period (around 1870). They are objects that usually have numerous sliding faces and disguised cut-outs that are required to be activated in a certain order to reveal its contents.
The difficulty of each box is often measured in ‘steps’ which is the number of correct movements of its parts in the right order. For example: A 32 step box requires 32 correct movements in sequence before it can be opened. Each step can only be performed should the previous be completed, this is due to the complex mechanisms within; opening and restricting access as its internal parts are shifted.
A typical Japanese puzzle box will consist of 5 – 12 steps, however, it’s not unusual to find some with 30 or more. It’s also possible to find those with over 100, although this is a little rarer and would be made by a specialist craftsman. It is also the type of step that can provide a challenge as many puzzle boxes are totally unique and feature imaginative mechanisms; meaning, if you’ve successfully opened one, you may not be able to use what you’ve learnt on others.
You will find that many Japanese puzzle boxes have a very distinct mosaic pattern — this is called Yosegi-Zaiku. This is a type of ornamentation that requires a variety of different types of wood and is the the first reason why the town of Hakone is important; aside from being home to skilled craftsmen, its an area that has varied topography, being close to both the sea and mountain ranges, which in turn means a unique cluster of plant life — and trees.
Development of the Japanese puzzle box
Back when puzzle boxes were first conceived in Japan, their usage was more closely related to their Japanese name; Himitsu-Bako literally means secret box. They were used to deliver messages of an important nature and store personal and valuable belongings to prevent theft, however their purpose and usage quickly changed. This is the second reason why Hakone is important.
Hakone is a small town that sits on a major transport route between the two most important cities in Japan, Tokyo and Kyoto. This being the case, many travellers and tourists would stop in Hakone en route. Their secret boxes were often bought as curiosities and souvenirs, and over time their purpose and appeal shifted from the usefulness as a secret storage box to the ingenuity of a puzzle box. This theme has continued into the modern day.
Traditional Yosegi-Zaiku designed Japanese puzzle boxes are still the most common type of puzzle box made in Japan, but with the rise in popularity of these unique souvenirs new shapes, designs, and mechanisms are being explored that are keeping the fascination of puzzle boxes alive. Most importantly Japanese puzzle boxes are still being made by hand today.
Where to buy?
Getting your hands on a Japanese puzzle box has become quite a straightforward procedure due to their developing popularity internationally. In fact many shops often have a variation of the Yosegi-Zaiku style design; of course most of these won’t be made in Japan but they may introduce you to Japanese puzzle boxes.
If you are looking for something more authentic or from sellers that are more accustomed to these types of products, here are a few places to try out.
Japan craft has two stores in Camden; one dedicated to anime merchandise; the other focuses more on traditional arts and craft and various other ‘typical’ japanese products. In terms of puzzle boxes, there is quite the range both in-store and online that range in size and difficulty and focus on traditional Yosegi-Zaiku made boxes.
If you’re looking to step up your Japanese puzzle box game, then Karakuri box is the place to go. Home to 10 specialist craftsmen; Karakuri box is a site dedicated to Japanese puzzle boxes each being handmade in Japan with their own unique style. Unlike Japan craft, the puzzle boxes you will find here often push the boundaries on what is possible with truly unique designs and mechanisms for serious fans. The site is based in Japan and the prices are in Yen however they do ship internationally.
The name should say it all here really. Puzzle Box World is a U.S based site that specialises in all things puzzle box related from around the world — not just Japanese. They stock a good number of traditional Japanese puzzle boxes as well as their own selection of Karakuri boxes; so it could be a good place to check out should you need an alternate avenue for those. Like Karakuri box, they do ship internationally.
There’s something incredibly delightful about a Japanese puzzle box that is hard to put down in words. I got my first puzzle box several years ago; despite only being small and consisting of seven steps, I find myself constantly admiring its ingenuity and re-doing the puzzle.
The usefulness as a storage device may be somewhat limited in the modern era; however, instead they have come to be admired for their creativity and the artistry used to craft them. It’s something you can’t help thinking about as you look at what is essentially a wooden box.
We now know there is more to them than just that and they hide a secret that only you know — or that’s the feeling they give at least.