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Japanese puzzle box


Japanese puzzle boxes, from a collector's point of view

A real masterpiece of craftsmanship, Japanese puzzle boxes are definitely an eye-catcher. Crafted exclusively in Japan by artisans that learned the craft passed on to them generation after generation, Japanese puzzle boxes have reached almost every corner of the planet, with an ever growing demand .With this lens I plan to give you a sneak peek into these fantastic works of art. Learn what "Sun" means, how many moves are there for solving the puzzle box, the different kinds of wood that are used in making the woodwork and also how to care for your puzzle boxes. Enjoy!

japanese puzzle box

japanese puzzle box

What is a Japanese puzzle box?

A Japanese puzzle box is an intriguing piece of art, both beautiful and functional. While closed(locked) there is no apparent lever or protruding part whatsoever, and of course no keyhole! In order to open it you have to slide certain parts in a specific order, otherwise it won't open . Each time that you move a piece another one unlocks, and if you get the sequence right you manage to fully open the puzzle box .This is why these boxes are perfect to hide personal belongings inside, away from prying eyes (friends or family actually, a thief will most likely grab the whole box!).It's also a perfect way to test your puzzle solving skills or dare a friend to do so. Even if you are not that much into puzzles, it can still provide some very high decorative value, wherever it is placed.

Here is a list of several trees used for the mosaic woodwork :

(see actual photos of the trees below)

White: Spindle or Ilex macropoda

Black: Aged Katsura

Yellow: Picrasma quassioides, mulberry or sumac

Brown: camphor and Amur maackia

Purple: American walnut

Blue: Japanese cucumber

Red: Chinese cedar

Depending on the pattern, timbers from the aforementioned trees are precisely cut into rods and glued tightly together, creating a (usually) geometric pattern. Thin slices of this bundle are then cut and glued on the surface of the box, and then treated with a light coat of semi-gloss/matt varnish. This gives the surface extra durability and a slight shine.

Why not try to make a puzzle box on your own? - If you got the skills or just want to experiment check out these great books:

Some japanese boxes you might like:

Number of movements - How hard a puzzle box is to solve

opened japanese puzzle box

opened japanese puzzle box

Japanese puzzle boxes vary in difficulty, depending on how many moves lead to solution. Usually the number of moves is between 4 to 66, though it is not uncommon to find larger boxes that can reach even 125 moves! (now that's gonna take some time to solve...)

As the number of moves goes up, so does the price, as the construction of a puzzle box with many moves is more elaborate.

Do you like solving puzzles and riddles?

Solution to opening the 4 Sun 14 moves Mount Fuji puzzle box - A rare and splendid box

Size Does matter.. - Learning what the "Sun" means

collection of Japanese puzzle boxes

collection of Japanese puzzle boxes

Sun is the traditional unit for measuring length in Japan . Each puzzle box is denoted a number of sun, which actually tells us how big the box is. To get an idea of the scale,here are the approximate lengths in inches:

1 Sun >> 1,22 inches

2 Sun >> 2,44 inches

3 Sun >> 3,66 inches

4 Sun >> 4,88 inches

5 Sun >> 6,10 inches

6 Sun >> 7,32 inches

7 Sun >> 8,54 inches

So the higher the sun number the larger the puzzle box will be ( and more expensive of course)

Measuring a puzzle box in sun is not precise. For example, a 4 sun puzzle box is usually 4 and a half inches long, 3,3 inches wide and with an approximate height of a little more than 2 inches.

Opening a Japanese puzzle box



Here are the basic patterns in woodworking that a Japanese puzzle box can have:

(from left to right)

Saya - Yosegi - Kuroasa - Kiasa - Akasa - Hineri(my favorite!)

It is not uncommon to find boxes that have non-geometrical designs on a couple of sides, like scenes from Japan's history and natural beauties. Some examples include: waves, geishas, Mt Fuji, Japanese symbols e.t.c. Sometimes the artisan can construct a box with a specific depiction, as per request by the customer.Needless to say these are highly collectible.

How to look after your puzzle box - Things to do and not do

mosaic woodwork

mosaic woodwork

You can wipe your boxes with a soft cloth, suitable for wood, with no chemicals or abrasive substances. Do not use any kind of cleaning solution as this will damage the surface.

Don't drop or hit your box with anything. The marquetry of the box is very very thin and it will be damaged if you don't exercise enough care.

Keep it out of direct sunlight to keep the colors of the wood as vibrant as possible.

Keep it away from moisture as this could cause the wood to expand and your box to become stuck closed.

Do NOT force the parts to move, otherwise you risk breaking them or jamming the mechanism. The Japanese puzzle boxes are meant to be opened with gentle sliding moves, in the correct sequence,treat them with respect.

In order to keep the box in perfect working state, you can put some talcum powder on a piece of cotton and puff it gently over the sliding parts of the mechanism. When you're done doing this, remove the excess powder with a soft cloth.

Are you the proud owner of a Japanese puzzle box?

What do you think of Japanese puzzle boxes?

Grant on June 15, 2015:


Please help... my 6 yr old son has inherited a Japanese Puzzle box and we are desperate to learn how to open it... mount fuji on one side and a brid in a tree on the other?


centralplexus (author) on May 10, 2014:

@mastersi: Hi ! Yes you can, glad you liked it!

mastersi on April 18, 2014:


anonymous on July 06, 2013:

manny I bought a puzzle box on a thrift store and this one has a secret little drawer into it, The Drawer was out when I bought itI have seen some of videos and I can't not to set the puzzle back especially the secret drawer If some one can help me

Tolovaj Publishing House from Ljubljana on July 05, 2013:

I am impressed!

centralplexus (author) on April 20, 2013:

@Sharon Weaver: I'm glad you liked them and many thanks for stopping by. Take care!

Sharon Weaver from Los Angeles, CA on April 20, 2013:

These are amazing. I should have bought one when I was traveling to Japan but alas I didn't. Beautiful patterns and I have always loved boxes.

centralplexus (author) on April 19, 2013:

@Whatsittoyou: That's why putting your keys in there isn't probably the wisest thing to do !LOL.

Thanks for stopping by, take care!

Whatsittoyou from Canada on April 19, 2013:

The bad would be putting something in there and then risking that when you need it, not being able to get it out.

centralplexus (author) on April 18, 2013:

@SimonJay: Wish I could, my woodworking skills are not that good.. Thanks for stopping by, have a nice day!

SimonJay on April 18, 2013:

I think if you can make your own it could be a really nice gift for someone.

centralplexus (author) on April 17, 2013:

@flinnie lm: Lots of fun actually! You're welcome!

Gloria Freeman from Alabama USA on April 17, 2013:

Look like fun, thanks for sharing.

centralplexus (author) on April 17, 2013:

@LadyDuck: Once you solved a couple it gets easier. Many thanks for your comments!

LadyDuck on April 17, 2013:

I like solving puzzles, it's sometimes very difficult to open a Japanese box. Very nice choice of boxes. Congratulations on your lens.

centralplexus (author) on April 09, 2013:

@NibsyNell: Many thanks NibsyNell! Have a nice day! ;)

NibsyNell on April 09, 2013:

Really would love one of these. It's an amazing idea!

centralplexus (author) on April 09, 2013:

@moralblogger lm: I'm glad you liked it! Thanks for stopping by and have a nice day!

moralblogger lm on April 09, 2013:

Truly Fascinating! I haven't got one yet, but it's only a matter of time before I get one that will test me to the fullest!

centralplexus (author) on April 09, 2013:

@gin001: You're welcome! Thanks for visiting and have a great day!

gin001 on April 09, 2013:

This is the first time I have heard of Japanese puzzle boxes. Beautiful boxes indeed! Nice lens... thanks for sharing.

centralplexus (author) on March 21, 2013:

@FamilyBeachVaca: Ha ha, best (and first) comment on this lens! You're welcome!

FamilyBeachVaca on March 21, 2013:

Thanks for that explanation of them, I had heard of them but this lens puts all of the pieces together (pun intended)