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Himitsu Bako - The Japanese Puzzle Box

Himitsu bako is a name given to small boxes made by combining unique puzzle mechanism with Yosegi-Zaiku and/or Moku-Zougan  inlay work. The merging of two arts, native to a single small town along the banks of Ashino-Ko Lake. Welcome to Hakone, Japan and the art of the Japanese Secret Box, also known in the west as a Japanese Puzzle Box.  

Secret puzzle boxes first appeared in the Edo Period, when the design for the trick opening mechanism was first developed. The technique was perfected in the middle of the Meiji era, and since then, continuous improvements have been made to make the art what it is today. To open the box, each box must be rotated, turned and moved a specific number of times (steps). Each style of box is different, full of surprises and unique ideas. Unique to Hakone, these boxes cannot be found anywhere else in the world. There are less than a dozen craftsmen working today to make these unique boxes. 

The Himitsu Bako / Japanese puzzle box appears on the surface to have no means for opening it. There is no lock and seemingly no opening. It appears to be just a beautiful wooden block. However, it includes a very tricky mechanism. It is impossible to open it, unless you follow the exact step-by-step procedure designed specifically for it. These steps can be as little as 4 moves or as many as 72. Solving the puzzle could take a few minutes to several hours, depending on the difficulty of the particular sequence required and the experience level of the person trying to open it. To make it even more challenging, artists have their own designs for the mechanism a family secret passed down through the generations. 

The steps required to open the box are only the first half of the story. The second art form is the fine inlay work that goes into each box. The Hakone area is famous throughout Japan for the wide variety of trees that are native to the area. The wood from these trees provide a colorful palette from which the artists are able to work without the need of stain, paint, or dye to produce the inlay work. These various woods are carefully aged then cut into thin pieces in many different shapes. The pieces are then assembled to create a small repeating pattern. This process is repeated over and over and the patterns are joined together to make one large piece. This final piece is shaved across the grain to produce a fine veneer which is then glued to the surfaces of the puzzle boxes.

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