About Japanese Puzzle Boxes

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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.

For 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:

  1. The article must be used mainly in everyday life.
  2. The article must be primarily manufactured by hand.
  3. The article must be manufactured using traditional techniques.
  4. The materials should be mainly those that have been traditionally employed.
  5. 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 puzzler’s 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.

Mr. 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.

Mr. Yoshio Okiyama History and Tradition of Himitsu-Bako

Himitsu-Bako in Japanese means secret box. This secret box was first referred to in a journal titled "Onsen Miage Hakone-sou" issued during 1830-1843. Onsen Miage Hakone-sou means "Hakone Hotspring souvenirs". In this time period the secret box was in its early stages. It was referred to as a 'Sikake-Bako' and 'Tie-Bako'. Sikake means device or trick and Tie means idea, wisdom or intelligence. The shikake-bako and tie-bako were a kind of Ito-Bako (string box-a small box used to contain strings, nails, sewing kits, etc.).

Yoshio Okiyama.jpg (93165 bytes)These string boxes were developed into small chests (tansu) for use by workers to carry their tools in and have their tools safe from theft. Because of the sikake (device or trick) no one could get into the box without first knowing the secret. Workers to keep their tools safe, used these chests on old coaches and ships. The Ito-Bako (small string box) was made with a very simple device/trick in the beginning. As this box became more popular the device/trick became more complicated. These boxes were soon referred to as a shikake-bako and tie-bako. Up to this point in history these secret boxes were very simple with little or no decoration. They did not resemble the secret puzzle boxes of today. It was after 1870, in the Meiji Period (1868-1912), that Mr. Takajiro Ohkawa, Mr. Tatsunosuke Okiyama, and Mr. Kikukawa developed a puzzle box with the integration of Yosegi-Zaiku creating the first Himitsu-Bako in the Hakone region of Japan. These gentlemen were first generation Himitsu-Bako Master Craftsman.

The Himitsu-Bako was used to keep important documents or secrets safe inside. Unlike a regular box, no one can open it unless he/she knows the device. Originally the boxes were more flat in shape and soon were developed into 5 sun and 6 sun sizes with up to 66 intricate moves to open.

The art of making Himitsu-Bako has never been written down as a pattern or a simple written explanation. Instead it has been passed on from master Craftsman to apprentice for three generations. Mr. Ohkawa passed on his knowledge to Mr. Ninomiya (who is retired and in his 80's). Mr. Ninomiya passed on his knowledge to Mr. Kamei and Mr. Kikuchi. Mr. Kikuchi is currently retired and Mr. Kamei presently makes his own unique form of puzzle boxes recognized throughout the world. Mr. Kikukawa passed on his knowledge to Mr. Suzuki and Mr. Yoshzawa. Mr. Yoshzawa passed on his knowledge to Mr. Kanbara who is currently making himitsu-bako. Mr. Suzuki and Mr. Yoshzawa have since passed away.

Mr. Tatsunosuke Okiyama passed on his expertise to his son Mr. Yoshitaro Okiyama who passed on his expertise to his son Mr. Yoshio Okiyama. Mr. Yoshio Okiyama is currently 75 years old and has no apprentice.

In May 1984, Hakone Himitsu-Bako and Yosegi-Zaiku were designated a National Traditional Handicraft by the International Trade & Industry Minister of Japan. In the Hakone area of Japan, there are about 100 people who are working in the field of Traditional Wooden Products. Of these 100 people, only about 30 craftsmen produce Yosegi-Zaiku. Yosegi-Zaiku is the mosaic patterns seen on the many different traditional wood products produced in the Hakone area.

The Himitsu-Bako is produced by only 9 traditional craftsmen. These craftsmen do not make the Yosegi-Zaiku, which adorns their secret puzzle boxes. The Himitsu-Bako craftsment produce their secret puzzle box virtually alone from start to finish. They each pick the wood they will use and then allow it to dry for a period of time. Next, they cut and assemble wood pieces to form the puzzle box. Finally, they apply the Yosegi-Zaiku to the outside of the box with the proper finishing technique. The youngest of the Himitsu-Bako Master craftsmen is about 60 years old. Currently, there are about three apprentices actively learning this art.

There have been other craftsmen who have attempted to create himitsu-bako by studying the box itself. Since there are no drawings or instructional writings, this is the only way unless they apprentice with a true Himitsu-Bako Master Craftsmen. Some craftsmen have produced a seemingly authentic puzzle box for less money. Be aware that unless they have mastered the technique of making a "Dabo" correctly their puzzle box is not a traditional Himitsu-Bako. If the dabo is correctly made then the puzzle box will open in exactly the number of moves it requires, no more and no less.

1999 by James Youngblood - Used by permission.

Work made by Yoshio Okiyama later than 1999   is signed with his distinctive “hanko” Okiyama Mark.jpg (44686 bytes)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 compartment.

Length
in Inches
1 sun 1.22
1.5 sun 1.83
2 sun 2.44
2.5 sun 3.05
3 sun 3.66
4 sun 4.88
5 sun 6.10
6 sun 7.32
7 sun 8.54

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. Izumiya Mark.jpg (42183 bytes)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 ofIshikawa.jpg (30819 bytes) 10_4s_Sansui_top_small.jpg (16814 bytes)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 called marquetry.
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 today.

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 can’t 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 finish.

The quality of the boxes available in Japan range from very bad all the way to very good. The “You can’t tell a book by it’s 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 apprentice’s 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 price.
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 won’t 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. We’re so confident that our puzzle boxes are top quality that we offer the most generous guarantee available anywhere: If you don’t 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.

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A mechanical puzzle is a self-contained object, composed of one or more parts, which involves a problem for one person to solve by manipulation using logic, reasoning, insight, luck, and/or dexterity.” - Jerry Slocum

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