Intricate wood working, beautiful patterns, a hollow interior, and no visible keyholes or latches: these are the characteristics of the Japanese puzzle boxes that have grown over 500% in value in the past three years. Puzzling though they may be to open, the history and craftsmanship behind these beautiful boxes make their high value and appeal non-puzzling, indeed.
The boxes have been called many things by first time Yosegi.com visitors, from personal secret boxes to trick boxes tor magic boxes. The term Yosegi actually refers to the woodworking overlaid onto the puzzle boxes—not the boxes themselves. Yosegi-Zaiko is “a type of traditional Japanese parquetry (geometric pattern woodworking) which originated in Japan’s culturally rich Edo Period” that is used in a variety of small handicrafts, like trays, boxes, and chests (yosegi.net). Originating in the Hakone Mountains, which are well known for the large variety of trees growing there, Hakone-Yosegi-Zaiko was created in the early Heian Period, more than 1,000 years ago. Then, during the late Edo Period (1603-1867), this form of craftsmanship become well renowned. Tourists traveling from Edo—present day capital Tokyo—would pass through Hakone, and Hakone-Yosegi-Zaiko products become popular souvenirs. About 100 years ago, the first master of Himisu-Bako (secret box) began making boxes, and with Yosegi-Zaiko inlaid into them, the boxes became colloquially known as Yosegi Boxes.
To create the intricate patterns of woodwork, masters use many different types of wood that are available to them in the Hakone region. Colors commonly used in yosegi patterns are white (Spindle trees or Ilex macropoda), black (aged Katsura), yellow (Picrasma quassioides, mulberry, or sumac trees), brown (camphor and Amur maackia), purple (American black walnut), blue (Japanese cucumber trees), and red (Chinese cedar). Timbers are cut into oblong rods, glued tightly together to create the pattern, and then thin slices of the pattern are cut off and glued to the boxes. On top of geometric patterns, some boxes feature landscapes made from the same process.
As popular as Yosegi-Zaiko products are there are surprisingly few artisans who are skilled in the trade left. You can support their craft by ordering a box here on Yosegi.com. During the Meiji Period in the late 19th centure there were three first-generation Himitsu-Mako Master Craftsman; Mr. Takajiro Ohkawa, Mr. Tatsunosuke Okiyama, and Mr. Kikukawa. They developed the puzzle box with the integration of Yosegi-Zaiku and created the first Himitsu-Bako in Japan’s Hakone district. The secrets behind the boxes have never been recorded or written down; each master has simply taken on an apprentice and passed the information down to them. Now there are third-generation masters who are making the puzzle boxes sold today, but there are still only a handful of people who know the trade.
Puzzle boxes today are sold primarily as novelty items to display and cherish, not to pass on secrets as the first boxes were used for. These puzzle boxes are available in many sizes and degrees of difficulty on Yosegi.com. Measured in “sun” (pronounced “soon”), a Japanese unit of measurement, puzzles boxes range from 1 sun (about 1.22 inches) to around 6 or 7 sun (7.32-8.54 inches), although that is the only dimension given. Each box contains its own, unique set of steps to unlock and open the box. The simplest boxes require only 5-10 steps, and most range from around 10 to 66 steps. However, larger more intricate boxes have been made that require over 125 steps—and one particularly large box requires over 360 steps. Each step is a small shift or slide of one of the seemingly seamless wooden pieces of the box. Each step must be done correctly and in the precise order, otherwise the box will remain locked and closed. But if all the steps are done correctly, the owner will be rewarded with the lid sliding off and revealing the hollow interior of the box. Steps must then be repeated backwards to close and lock the box.
With such a limited group of skilled artisans who are capable of making the beautiful wood boxes and geometric patterns, the value of these boxes is on the rise. Each master today has techniques and patterns that are unique to their own work, and to guarantee a high-quality box, consumers should be wary of cheaper alternatives. Too much or too little friction can causes problems opening the box, and the wrong amount of varnish can cause the box to warp or get stuck closed. With such impressive craftsmanship, history, and care put into the making of each box, though, it’s no puzzle why the puzzle boxes of today are so valued.