Japanese Puzzle Boxes - General Info

Not just puzzles, these are works of art created by a tiny cadre of master craftsmen in the Hakone-Odawara region of Japan. In Japan they are called Himitsu-Bako (translates to "personal secret box") Once you start to study them beyond their striking beauty, you see that there is no apparent lid and seemingly no way to open them. However, careful investigation reveals that its surface has several movable pieces. The fits are incredibly precise, but you can slide them in various sequences. Unless an exact series of moves is made however, the box will not open. This sequence and the number of steps required to solve the box is as designed by the craftsman for that box. It can take from 2 to more than 100! Even the most basic is not easy to find. Be SURE and save the instructions that come with each box.

The making of the boxes is comprised of two distinct arts; the box making with its complex and precise movements and the outer inlaid wood marquetry design, called Yosegi-Zaiku. The Himitsu-Bako craftsmen do not create the inlay that covers the box. They develop the design of how the mechanisms will work, select and dry the wood (a key part of the process), cut the pieces, and then assemble the box itself. The marquetry is applied afterwards. There are no drawings or written instructions on the manufacturing technique. For generations since the late 1800’s, to learn the craft one must apprentice with a true Himitsu-Bako Master. There are 2 types of Marquetry inlay, Yosegi-Zaiku and Zougan. Yosegi-Zaiku is a mosaic artistry applied to a variety of wood crafts including jewelry boxes, trays, and chests. The best is done by a small group of 30 craftsmen. It is a centuries old art and gives the bozxes their stunning look.

The coloring is all natural created from the color of the wood alone using the grain and texture of a wide variety of trees. For example, spindlewood for white, Katsura for black, sumac or mulberry for yellow, camphor for brown, Japanese cucumber for blue, Chinese cedar for red, etc…. To make these patterns, the wood is initially squeezed in a vise to create geometric patterns. The pattern is then planed using a special hand tool to create a paper thin sheet, which is then applied to the box. Zougan is a traditional artform in which pictures or scenes are made by inserting thin pieces of inlay into the surace of the box. The scenes can be quite varied.

"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 Japanese Puzzle Boxes. Note that the sun system does not describe the width or height, or the size of the inside compartment. 1 Sun = 1.22” 2 Sun = 2.44” 3 Sun = 3.66” 4 Sun = 4.88” 5 Sun = 6.1" 6 Sun = 7.3" 7 Sun = 8.5"

These boxes are available in only very limited quantities and we are pleased to offer them. The 6 and 7 sun puzzles are particularly rare.


Quality Considerations...
There are different qualities of Japanese secret boxes available today on the internet. A box may have the same marquetry design, size, and number of steps as another, but not necessarily be of the same quality. When looking at various sources for boxes, be aware that lower priced box of equivalent size and appearance may also be lower quality. The boxes could be made from two different studios or the difference could be that one is the work of an apprentice and the other of a master craftsman. We try to provide you with a good description of our boxes so that you can make an educated purchase decision and have zeroed in on three excellent studios to procure most of our boxes. They are Izumiya, Oka-Craft and Yamanaka. Here are some indicators of quality beyond the studio; -Is the craftman's hanko on the box? A master craftsman will leave his hanko, or signature stamp on the boxes that he creates. The hanko is usually located on the interior side of the lid. -Smoothness of movement...The ideal puzzle box should have a smooth movement. Panels should not move freely on their own, nor should excessive force be required to move them in the correct direction. -Surface quality...If the box has a natural finish it should be smooth. Lacquer finishes should be streak-free.

To clean and maintain, wipe the surface with a clean dry cloth. Do not use abrasive cleansers. They are pecision pieces, take care not to drop or allow impact to the box. Never use excessive force to move the panels.

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