A Trio of Outcasts - Japanese Puzzle Boxes

Posted on Jan 9, 2015 by Gabriel | 2 comments
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Falling ever more in love with Japanese Puzzle Boxes, this Christmas I couldn't resist and had to order a few ones to add to my rapidly growing - albeit still small - puzzle box collection. I love all kinds of puzzle boxes and trick boxes, ever since I started my puzzle collection, but the Japanese ones have a certain "je ne sais quoi" about them that truly fascinate me.

At first, when I began to notice the beauty of Japanese Puzzle Boxes, they all seemed very similar to each other with no particular differences, beyond the size and number of steps. The traditional Yosegi pattern is the most recognizable feature in these boxes and if you're not paying too much attention to them, that's all you gonna see...until you give them the attention they deserve.

There are so many different kinds of Japanese Puzzle Boxes I wouldn't know where to begin in order to describe them all, so I'll just stick to the ones I actually got. These three hand-crafted boxes are so different from the traditional Yosegi puzzle boxes that they defy the definition of what really makes a true Japanese Puzzle Box. Is it the mechanism? The pattern? The Materials? The people that make them? Because each of these three boxes don't have all four requirements at the same time.

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Let's start with the 4 Sun 12 Steps Kikkou puzzle box. This is a gorgeous design, made with a not so common pattern, called Kikkou. The name means tortoise-shell in Japanese, because the hexagon-like pattern is reminiscent of a tortoise shell. The design you see is in fact a derivation of the original Kikkou pattern, known as Bishamon Kikkou, because it's seen on Bishamonten's armor, a Buddhist deity.

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Being a 4 Sun puzzle box, this means that the size is 12cm in length, with 8cm wide and 5.5cm in height (4.72" x 3.15" x 2.17"). It's a great size that lets you see the real beauty of the Kikkou pattern all over the box. This is also another major difference from the well-known Yosegi pattern, since you can see several different geometric design within the same pattern all over the box. The Kikkou pattern has this M.C. Escher feel to it, kind of like a 3D image with different textures represented by the three wood colors. Mind you, none of the patterns you see in Japanese Puzzle Boxes are painted. They're made using a marquetry technique called Zougan, resulting in thin sheets of wood that is later applied as a finish to the box.

The Kikkou puzzle box can be opened in 12 steps, so it's moderately easy to open, at least if you're used to this type of mechanism. The first attempt can be somewhat tricky, in order to figure out the correct sequence of moves, since the top needs to move back and forth a couple of times, but with a bit of trial and error it's fairly easy to open. Closing the puzzle boxes is usually easier than opening, and this one is no different.

The second puzzle box is a bit different in terms of materials used. It's a 3 Sun 12 Steps Natural Wood - Stripes B. As the name suggests, instead of the usual lighter colored wood used in most Japanese Puzzle Boxes, this one uses natural wood, in a much darker shade. Also, the usual pattern is absent and in its place you can see a beautiful combination of alternating six colored diagonal stripes on the top and bottom made from exotic Japanese woods. The stripe pattern indicated is B, as there's another one with horizontal stripes. At the time I got it, both versions were available, but I preferred this one over the Stripes A for its bolder design.

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This box is a little smaller than the 4 Sun Kikkou, as it's a 3 Sun, measuring 9cm x 7cm x 5cm (3.5" x 2.75" x 2"), but just as beautiful as its bigger counterpart. The 12 steps required to open it are more or less identical to the 4 Sun box, but the difficulty is a little higher in the Natural Wood version, since the sliding panels are completely hidden in the single color sides of the box, as opposed to the easier to spot panels, seen by the offset pattern on the Kikkou version.

And last, but not least important, the 4 Sun 4 Steps Kumiki puzzle box. This is yet another completely different puzzle box from the ones we usually see on puzzle stores. At first sight, it looks like any other ordinary Yosegi puzzle box, but when you solve it you're in for a surprise, as the mechanism is a little different from the usual sliding side panels. It's the same size as the Kikkou box, but the steps required to open the lid are just four, although they're a little different from the traditional mechanism.

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Kumiki is the Japanese word for "joining wood together", and there's a whole type of interlocking puzzles dedicated to this craft. What it means for this unusual Japanese Puzzle Box is the way it's solved, since every side of the box can be taken apart into eight pieces and put back together again. There's essentially a two-part solving process: the first part is similar to any traditional puzzle box, with the exception there's no sliding panels on the sides - the sides themselves are slidable; after you open the top lid and slide it all the way off, you can actually remove the rest of the box's sides, which in itself is an impressive feature.

The design of the box is decorated with the beautiful Yosegi pattern, but again, the texture of the box is completely different from what you'd expect: it's rougher  to the touch, letting you know that the technique used is different from the usual Zougan. It seems that every single tiny piece of wood used to create the Yosegi pattern was meticulously put in place, one at a time, which is even more impressive; it has a shinier surface, as if a coat of glaze had been applied, and the wood is also different, though I can't be sure what its type is. And yes, one of the sides is actually a lot shinier than the other, as lighter colors were used.

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Closing Comments:

I was very surprised, in a positive way, by how these puzzle boxes were so different from the more traditional ones. Each one has its own special features and I'm so glad I pick these, because they're truly unique and very rare to find elsewhere. I love that my collection, despite being small, is very eclectic and has a lot of variety with many different types of puzzle boxes featuring different sizes, materials, shapes and colors. And this is only the beginning...I want more, many more...

Availability: At the time of writing, only the Kikkou box is available to buy from Japan Craft UK. The other two are no longer available, but it doesn't mean they won't be again. Just check the site often and you might be lucky. It was the first time I ordered from this site, but I was very impressed with the quality of service, the competitive prices and the wide range of puzzle boxes and other related Japanese goodies. And if you're in Europe, that means no customs taxes, which is quite a big incentive.

(Click to Enlarge) - My current Japanese Puzzle Box Collection


Paco Molina said...

As you said, I thought they all seemed very similar to each other, beyond the size and number of steps. You convinced me to try buying a different one.

Gabriel said...

Thank you, Paco. I'm glad I could change your opinion on these great puzzle boxes. The hardest thing is choosing them. There are so many different types... ;-)

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