The Himitsu-Bako (Personal Secret Box) is a traditional Japanese
puzzle box that was designed over 100 years ago in the Hakone region of Japan. The Hakone
Mountains are noted for their great variety of trees. The Personal Secret Box takes
advantage of this wide variety of natural wood colors and textures to produce their
elaborate geometric patterns. The appeal of the Personal Secret Box is not merely in its
entertainment qualities. It is valued as a Yosegi-Zaiku is a mosaic woodwork usually
applied to small handicrafts such as trays, boxes and chests. This marquetry technique is
originated in the late Edo Period, and in May of 1984, was designated a National
Traditional Handicraft by the International Trade & Industry Minister.
many years, the town of Hakone was a relay station on the main road to Edo (present day
Tokyo) and Hakone-yosegi-zaiku was developed as souvenirs for travelers. The geometric
design is made by binding together various shades of wood. Shaved off with a special
plane, very thin sheets of wood are then used as an outside finish for various objects
such as boxes. For a craft item to be designated a Traditional Craft Product under the Law
for the Promotion of Traditional Craft Industries, it must satisfy the following criteria:
- The article must be used mainly in everyday life.
- The article must be primarily manufactured by hand.
- The article must be manufactured using traditional techniques.
- The materials should be mainly those that have been traditionally employed.
- The industry must be of a regional nature.
Most Japanese Personal Secret Boxes (Puzzle Boxes) have a variety of difficulties
ranging from 4 to 66 moves. From a puzzlers point of view the 59-move box has the
most interesting sequence of moves, even better than the 66. A few large puzzle boxes have
exceptional numbers of moves, such as 78, 122, 119, or 125. These are made by Yoshio
Okiyama (photo), but unfortunately are not available at this time.
Okiyama is more than 80 years old, and is a legend in Hakone Himitsu-bako. He
chooses his own wood, cures it, cuts it to size, and to make a long story short does
everything himself except make the Yosegi that he applies to the boxes. He is the grandson
of one of the first puzzle box craftsman from Hakone. He has retired and has made his last
box. Mr. Okiyama died in 2003.
Work made by Yoshio Okiyama later than 1999
is signed with his distinctive hanko mark and is
packaged is a nice cardboard gift box. His work made before 2000 is usually not signed.
The prices of Mr. Okiyama's work has increased 500% in the last 3 years. We expect this
trend will continue.
The famous maker,
Ninomiya-san, created and produced some unique designs. Although they are not particularly
difficult, they appeal to puzzlers because of the unusual methods of opening and the
highest quality perfection in their production. You will be lucky if you find a used one
for sale at a puzzle party or swap meet of puzzle enthusiasts.
Truly unique contemporary
puzzle boxes are made by Akio Kamei. Instead of the traditional rectangular box shape and
yosegi inlay, these come in all kinds of shapes and styles. They also range from simply
beautiful (considered by some puzzlers to be excessively simple) to incredibly difficult
and still beautiful.
The Hakone puzzle box
makers use the sun system to describe the size of a traditional puzzle box. "Sun" is a traditional
Japanese unit of measure to denote length. 1 Sun is about 30.3 mm or about 1.22
inches. This system is used to describe the approximate size of Hakone Puzzle Boxes. Note
that the sun system does not describe the width or height, or the size of the inside
We consider 1 & 1.5 sun boxes
to be miniature (mame). 2, 2.5, and 3 sun boxes are small boxes. 4 sun boxes are medium
size. 5 sun is the standard size. 6 sun is large. And 7 sun is very large.
Sliding panel puzzle boxes are made by
various woodworking shops in Hakone, Japan. The individual
boxes are made by apprentices as well as masters. As with woodworkers everywhere some
produce better quality work than do others. The well-known master craftsmen make the best
traditional puzzle boxes: Ninomiya-san, Honna-Homna-san, Gambara-san, Goto-san,
Yamanaka-san, and Okiyama-san. The Izumiya Craft's Workshop are
producing some of the finest work available today. All new Izumiya boxes are marked with
the mark at the left.
Puzzle boxes that have pictures on their
tops and bottoms are referred to as Zougan puzzle boxes. The pictures are made from
different pieces of wood
of different colors fitted together perfectly into a block. The block is then sliced into
very thin sheets to produce the Zougan picture overlay that is applied to the box.
This is a very demanding and time consuming process. In the west, a form of this art is
Yoshihiro Ishikawa, (his mark is on the right) a Zougan artist of the Hakone region
collaborates with Marimo-san, a box maker to produce the Zougan Puzzle Boxes available
Click here for a pronunciation guide
to Japanese terms used in connection with puzzle boxes.
Puzzle boxes are not easy to make. Since
they depend on friction to work properly it is very difficult to produce a box that is
neither too loose nor too tight. This becomes more difficult the larger and more complex
the box becomes. Boxes that are too tight cant be opened. Boxes that are too loose
are not much fun for the puzzler. The instability of wood itself presents quite a
challenge to the puzzle box maker.
Finishing is another problem area. Some
boxes have a very nice smooth, flat finish. Other boxes have a very poor finish. The
lacquer is applied too thickly resulting in a rippled, uneven finish. Sometimes boxes are
wrapped in cellophane before the lacquer has completely cured. That totally runes the
The quality of the boxes available in Japan
range from very bad all the way to very good. The You cant tell a book by
its cover principle applies to Japanese Puzzle Boxes. The craftsman who makes
the puzzle box itself does not make the yosegi or zougan overlay that covers the box. They
buy it in sheets from yosegi makers and apply it to their boxes. So two boxes that look
exactly alike may be vastly different in quality when one is made by a master craftsman
and the other is made by an apprentice. The masters box will work flawlessly, the
apprentices box may barely work at all.
The apprentice-made boxes are meant for the domestic Japanese tourist souvenir market.
They are intended to be sold to Japanese school children on holiday in Hakone at a low
So, if you find what looks like one of our boxes for less elsewhere, you can be sure that
either the box is of inferior quality or the web site selling it probably wont be in
business much longer, or both.
Many of our customers have asked why
Japanese Puzzle Boxes are not readily available in shops in the USA, or in France, or
anywhere else. The answer is that poor quality is a big problem. To our knowledge
Cleverwood is the only source of Japanese Puzzle Boxes in the entire world - including
Japan! - that guarantees that the Japanese Puzzle Box you purchase will be of superior
quality. We personally inspect and test each and every box right before it is
packed and sent to you. Our inspection tag will be inside your box - proof that we opened
and tested it. Very few people have ever been dissatisfied with a Cleverwood Japanese
Puzzle Box. Were so confident that our puzzle boxes are top quality that we offer
the most generous guarantee available anywhere: If you dont like your
box for any reason, we will replace it or refund your purchase price within 1 year of the
date you receive the box. We have the best - others have the rest.