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Home > Puzzle Box History

Puzzle Box History

The History of the Japanese Puzzle Box

Himitsu-Bako (Personal Secret Box) History

The trick box. The secret box. The magic box, mystery box, personal box, puzzle box... No matter how you identify these traditional Japanese wonders, they are among the most intriguing and beautiful wooden art in the world.

The Himitsu-Bako (personal secret box) was designed over 100 years ago and continues to be produced in the Hakone-Odawara region of Japan. For more than three generations, local master wood workers have taken advantage of the wonderful variety and abundance of trees in this region. This extraordinary selection of high quality raw material is beautifully handcrafted by Japanese artisans. Stunning geometric patterns are created by using various combinations of natural colored woods, as are the traditional marquetry art pictures which adorn many Himitsu-Bako. The allure of the Japanese puzzle box extends well beyond its entertaining characteristics. It is also treasured as a traditional Japanese art form.

How to open a Japanese Puzzle Box!

On the surface, the Personal Secret Box is entirely enclosed. It's just a pretty box. There is no apparent lock and seemingly no opening whatsoever. However, as one begins to investigate closely, interesting secrets begin to reveal themselves! If you look very carefully, you will see that it's surface includes several movable pieces. You can slide this piece here, move that one there, push another on the opposite side, and so on. Alas, unless a precise step by step trick opening sequence is followed, the box remains impossible to open. Every trick box has it's own unique series of steps that must be followed. Unless each step is taken in the proper order, exactly as designed by the craftsman, it will not open. From 2 steps to 122 steps, traditional Japanese puzzle boxes are sure to keep your personal secrets safe.

Japanese Puzzle Boxes are beautiful pieces of art!

"Hakone-Yosegi-Zaiku Marquetry" is a woodcraft that uses abundant natural materials that are available around the town of Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture, which lies immediately to the south of Tokyo. This marquetry technique was created in the late Edo Period by a local master craftsman, Nihei Ishikawa (1790-1850), who lived in the Hatajuku area of Hakone. Situated on the Tokaido, the main highway between Osaka (the commercial center) and Edo (the nation's capital at that time), Hakone was also famous for its hot springs which attracted visitors from all over Japan. Because of these travelers, Hakone-Yosegi-Zaiku marquetry became well known all over the country as one of Hakone's souvenirs.

There are two types of Hakone-Zaiku Marquetry, "Hikimono" and "Sashimono". "Hikimono", is produced using potter's wheels and includes various products including bowls, and since the Edo Period Hikimono toys have been produced. "Sashimono", mainly boxes, are decorated on the surfaces with "Yosegi-Zaiku Marquetry" or "Zougan-Zaiku" Wooden Mosaic.

None of the wood used in "Hakone-Yosegi-Zaiku Marquetry" is artificially colored in any way and each work is created to take advantage of the natural colors of the various trees that grow around Hakone. "Yosegi-Zaiku Marquetry" utilizes many different colored thin pieces of wood which are initially squeezed in a vise to create geometric patterns. The pattern of this cross-section is planed to make one unit or sheet with a geometric pattern that is .01 cm (0.004 in.) thick. These paper-thin sheets are then glued on decorative boxes and other items.

"Zougan-Zaiku Marquetry" is made by setting patterns of landscapes and characters created by natural wood colors, which are cut out from wood materials, in a main board. At one time, each pattern was created with a needle and chisel. In 1889, Sengoku Shirakawa, who was a Yumoto Chaya (tea shop) owner, used a sewing machine imported from Germany with an attachment that successfully processed patterns with various designs. This method greatly improved precision manufacturing capabilities. As a result, the expression of Zougan-Zaiku Marquetry Wooden Mosaic was elevated to new heights. Like in "Yosegi-Zaiku Marquetry", thin paper-like sheets are adhered to various craftwork.

Main Wood for Hakone-Yosegi-Zaiku
White Aohada (Ilex macropoda Miq), Spindle Tree, Dogwood
Yellow Nigaki (Picrasma Quassioides Benn),Wax Tree, Lacquer Tree
Light Brown Japanese Pagoda Tree, Cherry Tree, Zelkova Tree
Dark Brown Keyaki-Jindai
Gray Honoki (Magnolia Hypoleuca)
Black Katsura-Jindai

Japanese Puzzle Boxes are produced in the Hakone-Odawara region of Japan

The mountains of Hakone are noted for the numerous varieties of trees found along their slopes. "Hakone-Yosegi-Zaiku Marquetry" is a form of inlaid and mosaic woodwork unique to this area, and craftsmen have made full use of the wealth of wood colors and textures found here to produce their elaborate geometric patterns.

Roughly 100 years ago, new types of Hakone-Yosegi-Zaiku emerged, they were Himitsu-Bako (Personal Secret Box). Originally 5 sun (10x15x6cm) size and 6 sun (13x19x9cm) size products which need 54-66 steps to open were developed. They were used to keep important documents or secrets safe inside. It could not be opened unless a precise trick opening sequence of moves was known. Not only were they practical boxes providing security, their aesthetic qualities stood on their own as beautiful works of art. Although they were quite expensive, these Personal Secret Boxes gained widespread popularity among the people of high society.

This Trick Box has a Secret Drawer!

Today, there are simpler Himitsu-Bako available. Some require only 7-10 steps to open. These were developed to increase interest amongst the general public and create a way that anyone could easily purchase them. They continue to be a leading souvenir to the many people who visit the Hakone region each year. In May 1984, Hakone-Yosegi-Zaiku was designated a national traditional handicraft by the International Trade & Industry Minister of Japan.

In the Hakone-Odawara region 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 and about 4 craftsmen produce Moku-Zougan. 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 craftsmen 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. To our regret, there are few successors to this traditional technique. Hakone-Yosegi-Zaiku is suffering from lack of skillful artisans. Your interest helps to keep this traditional art form alive.

Himitsu-Bako Master Craftsman
Mr. Yoshio Okiyama

Mr.Yoshio Okiyama was born in Hakone, Japan in 1924. At age 12, he started making Himitsu-Bako while apprenticing with his father Mr. Yoshitaro Okiyama. Winning many awards through the years for his hand crafted boxes; Mr. Okiyama developed the mechanism for the 27 step, 54 step, and 66 step move Himitsu-Bako. Mr. Okiyama never had an apprentice, he is recognized as a third generation Himitsu-Bako Master Craftsman. In 1994 the Association of Traditional Crafts Development of Industry in Japan commended Mr. Okiyama. Sadly, Mr. Okiyama passed away in the spring of 2003. He will be missed. To learn more about Mr. Okiyama's life and amazing contributions to the world of Himitsu-bako, obtain a copy of; A Collection of Works by Secret Box Master Craftsman Yoshio Okiyama.

Himitsu-Bako Master Craftsman
Mr. Yoshikazu Goto

Mr. Yoshikazu Goto was born in Hokone, Japan in 1935. His high quality Himitsu-Bako is the result of some 45 years of experience in wood working. Many awards have been presented to Mr. Goto throughout the years due to his careful selection of material and his dedication to producing only the highest in quality masterpieces. "Enough dry up", he insists, is the most important thing for quality woodworking. His careful attention to important details such as this, contributed to his winning the first prize of Hakone Odawara Woodworking Crafts competition in 1998.

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