Japanese Puzzle Boxes are called "himitsu-bako" in Japan, which translates to "Personal Secret Box". The first Japanese puzzle boxes were designed over 100 years ago in the Hakone region of Japan. The mountains in this region are known for their amazing variety of trees. Japanese puzzle boxes take advantage of these natural wood colors and textures to produce their elaborate geometric patterns.The techniques used to make these puzzle boxes have been used for generations in Japan and have been surpassed by none.
The finest Japanese puzzle boxes are still made in the Hakone region of Japan. There are very few traditional puzzle box artisans and for a while it seemed almost like a dying art. Luckily the artform has gained many new enthusiastic collectors from around the world and some very talented craftsmen are now emerging and creating fantastic new designs and opening methods.
These amazing boxes first appeared towards the end of the Edo Period in Japanese history around the 1860s when carriage bearers were subsidising their wages by producing and selling marquetry items in tea shops around Hakone where they could utilise the rich and vast array of coloured woods produced by the trees in the area.
The carriage bearers made these boxes so their travellers could hide valuable paperwork and money from highwaymen within them. Because they could only be opened by their owner who knew how to slide its hidden panels in a particular way these boxes were often overlooked as ornaments.
Over time because of their Yosegi-Zaiku and Zougan-Zaiku marquetry intricate design these boxes soon became desireable as object of art amongst the gentry of the land.
Yosegi-Zaiku marquetry is made by carefully selecting timbers of various natural colours, sometimes on occasions they may also be stained. These are then cut into shape and glued together to form geometrical patterns which are then carefully shaved off and glued to the box.
The Making Of...
The making of a Japanese puzzle box is comprised of two distinct crafts - the box making and the marquetry.
The marquetry on puzzle boxes is the technique used to adorn the outside of the puzzle box. The 2 major marquetry types are Yosegi-zaiku and Zougan art.
Yosegi-zaiku is a mosaic woodwork usually applied to small handicrafts such as trays, chests, and in our case - puzzle boxes. Using the large variety of trees available in the Hakone region of Japan, skilled craftsmen make patterned blocks using the shapes and color varieties to make the design they desire. After the pieces are glued together, thin layers are shaved off and then applied to the Japanese puzzle box or other artform.
Zougan art is a traditional Japanese artform in which elaborate pictures or scenes are made from inserting very thin pieces of inlay of the surface of the puzzle box. Some of the more popular scenes include Sansui (mountain lakes), Mt. Fuji, and Tobizuru (Flying Geese). The inlay is done by first chiseling out the desired shape from the box and then inlaying the area with another wood. This artform is exclusive to the Hakone region of Japan.
Most Common Woods Used in Japanese Puzzle Box Marquetry:
White - Spindle Tree, Dogwood
Yellow - Wax Tree, Lacquer Tree
Light Brown - Japanese pagoda tree, cherry tree, Zelkova Tree
Dark Brown - Keyaki-jindai
Gray - Honoki (Magnolia hypoleuca)
Black - Katsura-jindai