Japanese puzzle boxes with their complex underlying mechanics and aesthetic appeal were once used by everyone from travelers, housewives, and even ninjas and samurais. And although first created nearly 200 years ago, these pretty little mechanical boxes are still with us today.
Here we will review three of the best Japanese puzzle boxes you can buy. We will also reveal how they work and uncover its fascinating history.
- How does a Japanese puzzle box work?
- The best Japanese puzzle boxes to buy
- 5 sun, 21 step yosegi box
- 5 sun, 10 step box with secret drawer
- 2 sun, 7 step koyosegi box
- How to take care of it
How does a Japanese puzzle box work?
In this video, Stella Konczer attempts to open a small Japanese puzzle box. The video is owned and created by Stella Konczer.
A Japanese puzzle box has no visible openings, so a person who doesn’t know what it is wouldn’t even know that it’s a box – and that was the original intention behind it.
The panels have to be slid in a particular order for it to open. By moving the first panel in the right direction at just the right length unlocks another panel, which also has to be moved. Only upon completing each move in the correct sequence will the box unlock.
These locking and unlocking panels are made possible by a complex set of mechanisms built into the box, which is just as astounding today as it was when it was first invented during the late 19th Century.
The number of moves required to unlock depends on the difficulty level of the box, and it can range from between 4 to over 100 steps. The more steps there are, the more secure it is, but it also means a more complex set of mechanisms is required, which results in a pricier item.
For example, the sequence for a 4 step box can be figured out after a few attempts while a 100 step box is impossible to open without knowing the exact order of steps beforehand.
The best Japanese puzzle boxes to buy
The following puzzle boxes were handmade in Hakone, Japan, by highly skilled artisans with knowledge passed down over three generations.
They make great decorative pieces that never fail to attract the attention of family and friends or can even be used to hide valuable possessions. It also makes the perfect gift for that special someone and can also provide loads of entertainment as you watch your friends get frustrated as they try to open it.
Puzzle boxes are measured in traditional Japanese sun units, which is based on the Chinese metric system. One sun equals approximately 1.193 inches or 3.030 centimeters.
Japanese yosegi puzzle box – 5 sun, 21 steps
High-quality craftsmanship is clearly evident on this light-colored yosegi patterned box, with the sliding mechanism that works perfectly, the panels that slide with ease and the barely visible seams.
Mastering the 21 moves for unlocking it can be tricky at first, but most people get the hang of it fairly quickly. Clear step by step instructions for opening the box comes included.
The mid-sized box has dimensions of 7.2 × 4.2 × 2.9 inches and weighs 12.8 ounces.
Japanese puzzle box with a hidden drawer – 5 sun, 10 steps
A dark-colored yosegi patterned box with a secret drawer, much like the ones used by ninjas and samurai for keeping secret messages out of the wrong hands.
Although secret drawers are nifty features, such items do come with a minor drawback.
The main compartment has less depth than what a regular five sun puzzle box should have; to compensate for space that the secret drawer beneath it takes up. This may or may not be a problem, depending on the size of the item you want to store inside.
On the other hand, learning to open it is moderately easy because it takes only ten moves. Its outer dimensions are 5.8 x 3.8 x 2.5 inches and weight 1 pound.
Koyosegi puzzle box – 2 sun, 7 steps
An exquisitely beautiful Japanese puzzle box that also happens to be the smallest one on the list. As a matter of fact, its 2.4 x 1.5 x 1.9-inch dimensions and 3.8-ounce weight makes it compact and lightweight enough to easily fit inside your pocket.
It has all the hallmarks of a high-quality Japanese product, but what some might appreciate the most is its simplicity as it takes only seven moves to open.
It is ideally suited as an engagement ring box or for holding other types of jewelry gifts for that special someone.
How to take care of it:
Not only are puzzle boxes made from exotic wood but they are also considered to be detailed works of Japanese art. Therefore, it makes sense to take good care of it. Extend the lifespan of your box by following these three tips.
Wood has an incredible ability to absorb large quantities of moisture from the air. This moisture causes wood to swell and in the case of these items, could interfere with how the panels slide. Prevent this by keeping it away from excessive humidity.
With their aesthetic appeal, many people are more than likely to touch it. As a result, the box will eventually pick up some stains along the way. The best way to deal with a stain is to rub it off with a dry cloth. If that doesn’t work, dampen the cloth and gently rub again with a small amount of non-abrasive cleaning detergent.
Never drop the box or force the pieces to move.
The history of the Japanese puzzle box
During the Edo period, Hakone, a famous hot spring resort located on the wooded hills near Mount Fuji, served as a resting spot for those who traveled the Tokaido road, a road that connected the two cities of Kyoto and Edo (modern-day Tokyo).
The many trees in the area provided locals with material to handcraft an assortment of souvenirs for travelers to buy. Although business was good, none of the items made and sold solved a fundamental problem everyone who traveled along the Tokaido road had – the risk of being robbed by highwaymen.
Until one day, a local craftsman came up with a brilliant solution, the Japanese puzzle box!
The idea was for people to hide their valuables inside the box, and if they were ever to encounter highwaymen, they would mistake the item for a simple souvenir.
Not only did this idea work at first (highwaymen eventually caught on), but soon many others found a use for it, and these boxes became a common household item throughout Edo and Kyoto.
From housewives to ninjas, how everyone found a use for it:
Some examples include housewives who used it for storing sewing needles to keep them out of the hands of their children and workers who used a larger version of the box for keeping their tools safe.
But what is most interesting is how these items became an essential part of the samurai and ninja inventory.
The job of ninjas and samurai, who worked for Shoguns, consisted of more than just kicking ass. Sometimes they were tasked with less glamorous responsibilities such as delivering secret handwritten messages.
Some Shoguns, upon finding out about these boxes, approached the makers in Hakone and had them custom built with an additional secret compartment.
A secret handwritten message would be placed in the hidden compartment, and a ninja or samurai would have to deliver it. If he were ever to be intercepted by the enemy and lose the ensuing fight, the enemy would have to figure out the sliding sequence of the box or smash it open. Either way, chances are the secret compartment would remain intact, and the message, therefore, undiscovered.
World War II and the eventual revival of the Japanese puzzle box:
Japan’s participation in World War II almost bought an end to the Japanese puzzle box, and it took decades for the art to recover.
To make such a box requires skills, one could only acquire from a 10 to 15-year long apprenticeship. During World War II, many such apprentices were called for duty, and sadly most didn’t return. This left a significant shortage of skilled artisans capable of producing them.
The number of apprentices in Hakone has gradually increased since then, and although exact numbers are hard to come by, there still aren’t nearly as many as there were before World War II.
You must have noticed the beautiful patterns on these boxes. It’s a type of marquetry known as yosegi zaiku, which, just like the Japanese puzzle box itself, was developed in the Hakone region of Japan during the mid-19th Century.
Making these patterns is no easy task by any stretch of the imagination. It involves highly skilled craftsmen who cut different colors of wood into paper-thin shapes and seamlessly join them together into a complex series of geometric patterns.
The colors are often varied and have a vivid hue, which leads many people to believe that the wood has, in one way or another, been painted or dyed. And surprising to some, that is not the case because every color is 100% natural thanks to the diverse range of colorful trees found in Hakone.
Also, the use of yosegi marquetry is not confined to this art alone as it’s often found adorning other items such as vases, trays, and chests.
The Japanese puzzle box, almost lost to war, is still with us today. And despite living in this modern age where almost everything is made in whole or at least in part by machines, the puzzle box is still made entirely by hand the same way as its been done since the late 19th Century.
A must have for every Japanophile.