Himitsu-bako, or Japanese puzzle boxes, have a long and storied history. These beautifully crafted boxes are a delight to look at, but their appeal goes beyond their aesthetic appearance or even their functional purpose. What makes himitsu-bako so special is their unique puzzle mechanism. For over two hundred years, these intricate cases have entertained young and old.
The Beginnings of the Puzzle Box
The first himitsu-bako were designed for personal use and were small and relatively simple. But as their popularity grew, they became much more elaborate, and larger in size. Soon, they were being called “sikake-bako” and “tei-bako,” which mean trick box and clever box, respectively. Their popularity also spread beyond the town of Hakone, where they were invented. Tourists to the area were soon buying their own himitsu-bako as souvenirs, expanding their popularity even more. Soon, himitsu-bako would make their ways to all of the corners of the globe.
These increasingly elaborate boxes were also being put to new uses. Instead of being used simply to keep sewing materials out of the hands of children, or to store a piece of jewelry in the home, they were being used by samurai and warlords to pass messages securely. Travelers also used them, to keep their valuables safe while on the road.
Demand for the himitsu-bako continued to grow, and three notable artisans began to create boxes using a special style of wooden mosaic that the region was known for. The woodworking style is known as yosegi-zaiku. These artisans were Takajiro Ohkawa, Tatsunosuke Okiyama, and Kikukawa. Their efforts led to the creation of the distinctive style that himitsu-bako are still known for today.
Before himitsu-bako were invented, the Hakone-Odawara region was already renowned for its uniquely talented woodworkers. One reason their work was so sought after was the abundance and variety of high-quality wood in the area. With access to wood of such beauty and diversity, many generations of artisans worked to create intricate ways to showcase the many different hues, textures, and grains in creative ways.
One of the most popular forms of woodworking in Hakone, therefore, became yosegi-zaiku. Craftsmen used different shades of wood in careful inlays to create astonishingly intricate and beautiful geometric designs. Woodworkers then, and today, are proud of the fact that the wood used in traditional yosegi-zaiku is not painted, stained, or otherwise artificially colored. Each piece of wood must be carefully sought and selected to contribute to the overall effect of the design.
Many of these designs have special names that describe the design or honor the craftsman who invented or perfected it. Ichimatsu, for example, means “checkered” and describes a multicolored pattern of small squares arranged in cascading diagonal stripes. Koyosegi combines many different patterns arranged artistically. Kuroasa means “dark morning,” or “dark sunrise,” and consists of interlocking star shaped patterns made with a dark wood.
These designs actually form only a thin layer on the exterior of the box. The patterns are crafted in very thin sheets, which can then be cut and applied to puzzle boxes (or other items) for decorative purposes.
Another style of wood inlay, zougan, is also used to decorate puzzle boxes. Zougan inlay, instead of focusing on interwoven geometric patterns, creates a representative image. Often this image is inspired by traditional Japanese art.
When these designs were combined with the himitsu-bako, a truly enchanting artform was born. While not all himitsu-bako are adorned with yosegi-zaiku, those that remain cherished for representing this treasured part of Japan’s cultural history.
What Makes Himitsu-Bako So Special?
Himitsu-bako are beautiful, but it’s their puzzles that have long captivated everyone who has had the opportunity to examine one. Not only must one find identify their moving parts, which can be difficult in itself due to the usual mosaic style, but one must also know the correct order in which to move each part.
This sequence can be relatively easy and require only a few moves, in the simplest of himitsu-bako. However, the more advanced boxes can require dozens of moves. Each tile must be slid in a particular direction, in a particular order, or the contents of the box cannot be retrieved. Some boxes may require fifty moves or even more!
Unopened, a well-crafted himitsu-bako reveals nothing about its opening mechanism or its contents. In most cases, it’s impossible to even identify which panel functions as the lid until every part of the opening sequence has been completed.
This is what made himitsu-bako so valuable as a security measure when they were initially invented. One could be certain that, for example, a message placed inside would be retrieved only by someone who knew the sequence. Think of it as an early method of “encrypting” data.
Today, of course, we have other ways of passing messages securely. But himitsu-bako are still beloved for their beauty and cleverness, and still, provide a safe and secure way to contain valuable trinkets.
Today, himitsu-bako are still crafted using the same traditional methods that have been passed down for generations, in Hakone. There’s still a community of about 100 people who are keeping the traditions of yosegi-zaiku, zougan, and himitsu-bako alive in their purest forms. Usually, the craftsmen who produce the boxes themselves do not produce the mosaic designs used to cover them. Instead, each craftsman spends a lifetime perfecting his own particular skills, and perhaps passing them on to an apprentice.
Of course, their popularity over the past two centuries has also inspired other cultures and artisans to create their own puzzle boxes. The legacy of himitsu-bako is one that is going to stretch far into the future.
If you had a secret puzzle box, what would you keep in it?