Japanese Puzzle Boxes: What you need to know...

Chinese Puzzle Boxes? Japanese puzzle boxes are often erroneously called Chinese puzzle boxes. Although a few Chinese puzzle boxes may exist, the Japanese puzzle box is what is usually inferred when Chinese puzzle boxes are referred to.

Japanese Puzzle Boxes are called "himitsu-bako" in Japan, which translates to "Personal Secret Box". The first Japanese puzzle boxes were designed over 100 years ago in the Hakone region of Japan. The mountains in this region are known for their amazing variety of trees. Japanese puzzle boxes take advantage of these natural wood colors and textures to produce their elaborate geometric patterns.The techniques used to make these puzzle boxes have been used for generations in Japan and have been surpassed by none.

The finest Japanese puzzle boxes are still made in the Hakone region of Japan. There are very few traditional puzzle box artisans and for a while it seemed almost like a dying art. Luckily the artform has gained many new enthusiastic collectors from around the world and some very talented craftsmen are now emerging and creating fantastic new designs and opening methods.

The making of a Japanese puzzle box is comprised of two distinct crafts - the box making and the marquetry.

Box Making... The himitsu-bako craftsmen do not create the marquetry that covers the box. They create and design the puzzle box itself and then apply the marquetry afterwards. Before creating a new box, they first design how the box mechanisms will work. They then select the wood to be used and let it dry for a time. After the wood has dried, they cut the pieces and assemble the box. Finally, the marquetry is applied.

Marquetry... The marquetry on puzzle boxes is the technique used to adorn the outside of the puzzle box. The 2 major marquetry types are Yosegi-zaiku and Zougan art.

Yosegi-zaiku is a mosaic woodwork usually applied to small handicrafts such as trays, chests, and in our case - puzzle boxes. Using the large variety of trees available in the Hakone region of Japan, skilled craftsmen make patterned blocks using the shapes and color varieties to make the design they desire. After the pieces are glued together, thin layers are shaved off and then applied to the Japanese puzzle box or other artform.

Zougan art is a traditional Japanese artform in which elaborate pictures or scenes are made from inserting very thin pieces of inlay of the surface of the puzzle box. Some of the more popular scenes include Sansui (mountain lakes), Mt. Fuji, and Tobizuru (Flying Geese). The inlay is done by first chiseling out the desired shape from the box and then inlaying the area with another wood. This artform is exclusive to the Hakone region of Japan.

What do "SUN" and "STEPS" refer to? "Sun" and "Steps" are 2 terms used to describe most Japanese puzzle boxes. Sun describes the approximate length of the puzzle box. 1 Sun is about 30.3 mm or about 1.22 inches. The "Sun" measurement only applies to the length. It does not refer to width or height of the box. The number of Steps necessary to open the puzzle box are also an important factor. Usually, more steps denote a higher difficulty to open.

Most Common Woods Used in Japanese Puzzle Box Marquetry...


  • White - Spindle Tree, Dogwood
  • Yellow - Wax Tree, Lacquer Tree
  • Light Brown - Japanese pagoda tree, cherry tree, Zelkova Tree
  • Dark Brown - Keyaki-jindai
  • Gray - Honoki (Magnolia hypoleuca)
  • Black - Katsura-jindai


    How to Open Japanese Puzzle Boxes... Japanese boxes are meant to be an enigma. Without instructions or previous experience with them, they seem nearly impossible to open. Even with instructions they are a challenge, because, unless the box has a unique zougan design on the lid, you never know which end is which or which side is top or bottom! The illustrated instructions provided are directly from the box maker, so they may be in Japanese, but the numbers and arrows are self explanatory. All of the boxes have at least one moving side or top panel. Many of them also have sliding "keys" or small parts of a side panel that slide out for part of the opening process. Some boxes parts move smoother than others. We try our best to give our impression on the smoothness of movement for each box we sell. It is important to have clean hands when opening your box and to watch your fingernails. If the pieces are a little harder to move, try using rubber gloves or rubber finger tips. This not only gives you a better grip, but protects the wood from unwanted oils or fingernail scratches.

    How to Care for Japanese Puzzle Boxes... Since Japanese puzzle boxes are intricate works of art and are made from wood, here are some things to keep in mind to insure that you are able to enjoy them for many years.

    • Avoid areas of high humidity and high temperature.
    • To clean, wipe the suface with a clean dry cloth. Do NOT use abrasive cleansers.
    • The first few times that you open a box, you may want to use lightweight rubber gloves or rubber fingertips. This will help prevent your nails from damaging the marquetry or denting the wood.
    • Do not drop or allow impact to the box.
    • Never force pieces to move.

    Quality Factors... There are many different qualities of Japanese secret boxes available today on the internet. It is very hard to judge the quality of the box just by looking at a picture, because even though the same marquetry design, size, and number of steps are the same, boxes could be made from two different studios or the difference could be that one is the work of an apprentice and the other of a master craftsman. That is why we try to provide you with the best description possible.

    The quality factors we consider at Unique Box Shop include:

    • What studio produced the box? There are several studios who create quality boxes. Our favorites include Izumiya, Oka-Craft, and Kakutaya.
    • Is the craftman's hanko on the box? A master craftsman will sometimes leave his hanko, or signature stamp on the boxes that he creates. This is usually located on the interior side of the lid.
    • Wood type: The best boxes are generally made of Katsura wood. Larger boxes may be made of composite wood since it tends to warp less and function better for larger pieces.
    • Smoothness of movement...The ideal puzzle box should have a smooth movement. Panels should not move "accidentally", nor should excessive force be required to move them in the correct direction.
    • Surface quality...If the box has a natural finish it should be smooth. Lacquer finishes should be streak-free.

    Don't be fooled by lower prices!...For example, if you see a 4 sun 7 step Koyosegi design box on our site that has a studio stamp, craftsman hanko, and gift box for $59.95 and you see another 4 sun 7 step koyosegi box at another site for less, don't assume that the other box is the same. Unless the site specifically informs you of the details, you may not be getting a top quality box. Even our own boxes at UniqueBoxShop come in several quality grades. Please read the descriptions and make the choice that is right for you and your balance between quality and cost.

    Order from Unique Box Shop with confidence... We've been selling Japanese puzzle boxes on the internet since 2001. We personally inspect each box before carefully and promptly shipping it to you. We have many return customers because they know they can rely on Unique Box Shop to insure that each Japanese secret box is exactly as described on the site. Most of our Japanese boxes are from the Izumiya and Oka-Craft studios, two of the most trusted and reliable sources of authentic himitsu-bako. We've seen many other internet sites selling Japanese boxes come and go, but Unique Box Shop is still here and will remain.

    When ordering from Unique Box Shop you get:

    • Full company information
    • Easy to navigate shopping and secure online checkout
    • Detailed product descriptions
    • A variety of other boxes to select from
    • Fast shipping (Most orders arrive within a week!)
    • Your satisfaction guaranteed - full refund within 30 days of purchase
    • Free shipping (within USA) for all orders over $100