Japanese Puzzle Boxes
The Japanese puzzle box with its complex underlying mechanics and aesthetic appeal were once used by everyone from travelers, housewives, and even ninjas and samurais. Although first created nearly 200 years ago, these pretty little Japanese 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 it works and uncover its fascinating history.
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 a puzzle box is wouldn’t even know that it’s a box – and that was the original intention behind it.
To open it panels have to be slid in a particular order. By moving the first panel in the right direction at just the right length unlocks another that 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 amount of moves needed to unlock depends on the difficulty level of the box, but it can range from between 4 to over 100 steps. The more steps a box has, the more secure it is, but it also means a more complex set of mechanisms is required which results in a pricier box.
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 boxes are handmade in Hakone by highly skilled craftsmen with knowledge passed down for three generations.
They make great decorative pieces that never fail to attract the attention of family and friends or can be used to hide valuable possessions. It also makes the perfect gift for that special someone and can even be fun 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 workmanship 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 can be tricky at first, but most people get the hang of it fairly quickly. Clear step by step instructions for opening the box is included.
The mid-sized box has dimensions of 7.2 × 4.2 × 2.9 inches and weighs 12.8 ounces.
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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 puzzle boxes do come with a minor drawback.
The main compartment has less depth than what a 5 sun puzzle box should have, to compensate for the space 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.
Learning to open it is moderately easy because it takes only 10 moves.
Its outer dimensions are 5.8 x 3.8 x 2.5 inches and weight 1 pound.
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Koyosegi puzzle box – 2 sun, 7 steps
An exquisitely beautiful Japanese puzzle box which also happens to be the smallest item 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 7 moves to open.
Ideally suited as an engagement ring box or for holding other types of jewelry gifts for that special someone.
Get the latest price from Amazon.com here.
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 a Japanese puzzle box, could interfere with how the panels slide. Prevent this by keeping your puzzle box 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 popular hot spring resort located on wooded hills near Mount Fuji, served as a famous resting spot for those who traveled the Tokaido road, a road which connected the two cities of Kyoto and Edo.
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 being made and sold really 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 to encounter highwaymen, it would be mistaken 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 Japanese puzzle boxes 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 things such as delivering secret handwritten messages.
Some Shoguns, who upon finding out about the Japanese puzzle box, approached the makers in Hakone and had them custom built with an additional secret compartment.
A secret handwritten message was placed in the hidden compartment, and a ninja or samurai would have to deliver it. If he was ever to be intercepted by enemy forces and lose the ensuing fight, the enemy would have to figure out the sliding sequence of the box or smash it open. Chances are the secret compartment will 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 a Japanese puzzle 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 puzzle boxes.
The number of apprentices in Hakone has gradually increased since then and although exact numbers are hard to come by there still aren’t as many as there were prior to World War II.
In this video from Tewaza, you will learn more about the process behind yosegi marquetry.
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 Japanese puzzle boxes 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.