Himitsu Baku is a Japanese puzzle box that is currently
produced by only nine traditional craftsmen. These
artisans are not responsible for creating the
Yosegi-Zaiku patterns that adorn their secret boxes, but
they are responsible for producing their secret box
puzzles virtually alone from beginning to end. Each
artisan is responsible for choosing their own wood, then
allowing it to dry and curing it. Next, they are
responsible for cutting all of the wood pieces and
assembling them to create the challenging puzzle box.
Finally, they purchase the Yosegi-Zaiku patterns in
sheets, and attach them to each face on the box using
the right finishing techniques. The youngest of all
Himitsu Baku master craftsmen today is around sixty
years old, though there are a number of apprentices who
are working to learn this unique art so that the
tradition can be continued even when the original
craftsmen have passed on.
original Hakone region Himitsu Baku makers use the 'sun'
system when they describe the sizes of their traditional
puzzle boxes. "Sun" is a traditional unit of
measure in Japan that denotes length, and a single 'sun'
is about 30.3 millimeters, or approximately 1.22 inches.
This system is most commonly used in order to describe
the approximate sizes of the Hakone Puzzle Boxes, but
the sun system is not used to describe height or width,
or how large or small the inside compartment is. The sun
system uses numbers ranging from 1 sun to 7 suns, with 1
sun equaling 1.22 inches, 2 suns equaling 2.44 inches, 4
suns equaling 4.88 inches, six suns equaling 7.32 inches
and 7 suns amounting to 8.54 inches. Mame, or miniature
boxes range from 1 to 1.5 suns, small boxes range from 2
to 3 suns, 4 sun boxes are medium sized boxes, 5 sun
boxes are standard, 6 sun boxes are considered to be
large sized boxes, and 7 sun boxes are 'very large'.
Himitsu Baku puzzle boxes are not by any means simple to
make, because they depend heavily upon the presence of
friction in order to work properly, and therefore
require that the box is neither too tight nor too loose.
As the boxes become larger and more complex, this
process can become more and more difficult. If the box
is too tight, then the box will not be able to open. If
the box is too loose, then the person decoding the
puzzle will have too easy a time to do so. The fact that
wood is intrinsically unstable also makes it hard for
puzzle box makers to create them.
Baku Japanese puzzle boxes come in a variety of
different shapes, sizes, designs, difficulties and
quality levels, which means all kinds of puzzle
enthusiasts can explore a great many different options
available to them. As more apprentices learn how to
create these innovative puzzles, hopefully the Himitsu
Baku tradition will continue.