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How does a puzzle box work?

Puzzle Box Origin

The Japanese are credited with creating the first puzzle boxes in the early- to mid-19th century in Japan's Hakone region, just south of Tokyo. Dubbed Himitsu-Bako, or personal secret box, they were marketed to people traveling by carriage as a way to hide their valuables from highway robbers. Robbers typically overlooked the boxes, which appeared to be merely ornamental objects [source: Serious Puzzles].

Ornamental, indeed. Hakone's puzzle box makers crafted beautifully decorated boxes using a popular regional woodcraft marquetry technique that developed due to the area's wide variety of trees, such as the spindle tree, wax tree, cherry tree and Katsura-jindai tree [source: Serious Puzzles]. The wood from these trees has differing textures and an array of colors, from black and gray to yellow and white, which allowed local artisans to create intricately designed wooden pieces, such as bowls, trays and toys [source: Frik-n-Frak].

There are two decorative styles for boxes: Yosegi-Zaiku and Zougan. Yosegi-Zaiku is a mosaic style, where a skilled craftsman cuts different colored woods into various shapes, then glues them together to form geometrically patterned wood blocks. Thin layers of these blocks are shaved off, then glued to the puzzle box's exterior. The Zougan technique involves first chiseling out a particular shape into a puzzle box's surface, then creating elaborate scenes inside it using thin pieces of wood inlay. Some of the more popular Zougan scenes are mountain lakes, Mount Fuji and flying geese [source: Serious Puzzles].

Japan's early boxes were fairly large and required anywhere from about 50 to nearly 70 steps to open. They were also pricey and became sought after by Japan's wealthy citizens. Over time, the number of artisans skilled in the Yosegi-Zaiku and Zougan techniques declined. In an effort to attract more buyers, modern Himitsu-Bako are smaller, cheaper and less complicated, and that effort is paying off; they're one of the top souvenirs for visitors to the Hakone area. And despite the declining number of skilled puzzle box makers, Hakone boxes are still considered the most beautiful in the world [source: Frik-n-Frak].