Following up on last year’s post about the 2020 Karakuri holiday boxes, I figured I’d make a thing of it and do it again for 2021. (If you don’t know about the Karakuri holiday boxes and membership, you can learn more here).
Getting my box of boxes in mid-December was a cause for bittersweet celebration; I knew it was destined to sit unopened for a couple more weeks until X-Mas, when I would see each of the 7 boxes for the first time. Having not yet learned my lesson, I hoped that it might spark the teeniest bit of interest in my 15 year-old son (it did not); it did, however, continue to develop the interest of my 81 year-old Cuban mother-in-law lol (she thinks they’re super cool, which of course they are).
If you did not sign up for one or more of the boxes, maybe this will help you decide which are worth going after this year – as always, they will pop up here and there on the puzzle auctions, typically growing in value the further from December we get until, seemingly suddenly several seasons hence, they sometimes start selling for obscene sums. And for good reason: if you have yet to learn this life lesson, Karakuri boxes are cool… I know I will be getting another round of 7 come Xmas 2022.
And now: on to the show (in alphabetical order by maker’s first name):
Akio Kamei – Pile of Disks 3
Unofficially known as the Egg McMuffin, Kamei’s newest creation consists of 5 circular layers of maple, zelkova and rosewood, laid out symmetrically. As the third in a series, this Pile of Disks is leaner than its siblings at 80mm x 30mm, his hanko displayed in the center of one side. Surprisingly, this ended up being one of the last two I wiould manage to solve – I had thought that the solution was somewhat obvious but it nonetheless took me an embarrassing amount of time over several days of fidgeting with it in front of the tv, growing increasingly certain that there was “something wrong with it.” As is typical when such a thought comes to the mind of a puzzler, there was not, I am just an idiot (probably not a surprise to anyone who reads these rambles). While the basic mechanisms were what I had thought, there was a small but essential nuance that had to yet to slap me in the head. I had begun to think that the solution was annoyingly precise but, in fact, it is quite elegant, with a final touch that gave me a welcome smile after how hard a time it had given me. Having opened it, I did it several more times, shaking my head at my own ineptitude and smiling at the subtle design choices that are the difference between trivial and tricky.
Hideaki Kawashima – Moonlit Night
Following up on 2020’s Moon, Kawashima continues his lunar legacy in honor of the two lunar eclipses seen in Japan (and elsewhere) in 2021 (there is a circle on each side of the box). Its size of 72mm x 75mm, along with the colors of the magnolia, walnut and zelkova, lets it sit well with some of his other!similar boxes, most particularly its predecessor. While I did not have too much difficulty with this box, I did manage to go in circles for a bit before an aha let me find what I’d been missing. The maker’s hanko is hidden in one of its two compartments (presumably one for each eclipse). Despite not being too hard, I like the theme and idea: it is cool to be able to see what the maker was thinking and feel the connection he was going for. Holiday boxes arrive without names or descriptions, which have only recently been shipped out to participating members; these gave me a better appreciation for this box in particular, with an aesthetic that captures the concept rather brilliantly.
Hiroshi Iwahara – Fluctuation Box
One of the cooler looking boxes of this year’s holiday haul, Fluctuation has a springy, tactile feel that makes it fidget friendly and rather fun to solve. Somewhat unique in the nature of its trickiness, the box may take a bit of practice to master. The alternating layers of maple and chanchin look great inside the contrasting top and bottom of walnut and (something? – I may have confused some of these but I think I have it correct) and a little knob adorns the top.
At 160mm x 170mm x 66mm, it is the largest of this year’s boxes and is a development of Iwahara’s 2006 holiday box, Covered Chimney, with which it shares a similar aesthetic.
Osamu Kasho – Little Shark
Little Shark might be my favorite of the year, both adorable and the most difficult for me to solve! Its diminutive size of 80mm x 115mm x 45mm did not stop it from taking me weeks of picking it up and trying the same couple of things over and over before I finally did something a bit differently than (I think) I had tried before, earning me the biggest aha of the holiday. It is always a pleasure to get the kind of laugh-out-loud Karakuri moment that compels me to share my glee with my not-particularly-interested wife (who allows for a quick “that’s nice, babe” before turning back to whatever show was trying to distract me from my puzzling).
Knowing the solution, I can fully appreciate the excellent craftsmanship that hides it (one of the main reasons I absolutely love the KCG. It is also adorable, the walnut, magnolia and dogwood maintaining a consistency with Kasho’s Whale boxes: Whale, Baby Whale and Whale Type I, but with evil shark eyes contrasting cutely with the friendly, rounded eyes of the whales.
Shou Sugimoto – Reversible Box
Sugimoto’s box is another of this year’s personal (and probably public) favorites, with a unique solution that sees the box becoming more beautiful as you progress, an interesting design choice that demands repeat play. These changes are surprising and have me tempted to leave the box in mid-solve for display (my spoiler sensitivities are of course too strong to permit this, allowing for a resistance to temptation rarely exhibited by my life choices).
It is a bit smaller than most Karakuri boxes at 59mm x 97mm and compensates with a beautiful use of maple, chanchin, magnolia, wenge and Japanese torreya, some of which you may notice is not visible in its reset state. When first working on it, there was an initial worry that the solution was just painfully obvious, with early progress that turned out to be a bit misleading, functioning instead as a segue into a beautiful sequence that leads into the final steps (the last of which eluded me for a bit, partly due to my desire to repeat the middle steps and partly as it is well-hidden). The final step shows the precision with which KCG boxes are pretty much always made. His hanko is inside and is one of the cooler marks used by KCG members, a more stylized use of Japanese characters.
Yasuaki Kikuchi – Well, well, well, Where has buddy gone?!
Winning this year’s “Oddly Long and Confusing Title” Award, Kikuchi has made something that is pretty much as hilarious a Karakuri box as I have ever seen. The solution is not short but neither is it particularly difficult; the real awesome-sauciness of this box comes after it has been opened, where you find something whose purpose is not immediately apparent until you step back and look at the opened box with new eyes. I soon saw the purpose of this discovered trinket and full-on guffawed at the result of its use. I don’t mean to be so cagey about this but it would of course be a massive spoiler to say anything further.
The holiday theme is once again on full display, with Santa’s sled leading you deeper into the Christmas canon in a comically consistent manner. It is an adorably sized 61mm x 110mm x 68 and, as with Sugimoto’s box, some of the woods used are not immediately apparent; its cherry (?) outside hiding some dogwood and walnut once solved.
Yoh Kakuda – Boxing Kangaroo
What kind of Karakuri Christmas could it be be without a cute Kakuda creation like Kangaroo? It is adorable and amusing, with a design that is sure to make you smile. Despite perhaps being a bit predictable, I enjoyed the solve and felt compelled to repeat one particular step several times as Kakuda once again does a great job of integrating thematic elements into the box. Kangaroo is a good-sized 63mm x 110mm x 121mm, with padauk boxing gloves contrasting nicely with the cherry used for the majority of the puzzle (with an adorable magnolia nose). I noticed that the maker’s mark has changed a bit, with added english letters that stand apart from the more traditional hankos used by most other KCG members (and is pretty cool imo). Now I’ve just got to see how it fares against a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot.
(I unfortunately traded my copies of Wombat & Tunnel Maker from 2019 & 2020, so no comparison pic)
And that’s 2021!
I’m already looking forward to whatever boxes KCG will produce in 2022 – time to renew my membership!
It’s that time of year again: families gathering around blahblahblah……. we know what really matters: Karakuri Holiday Boxes! (If you don’t know about how the holiday boxes work, you can learn more here).
At the end of a strange year, I felt like Jimmy Stewart at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life when a big box of smaller boxes containing my new puzzle boxes arrived sometime in mid-December: “Merry Christmas Movie House! Merry Christmas you wonderful Building & Loan!” Merry Christmas Karakuri Puzzle Boxes! Now Dasher! Now Dancer! Now Prancer and Vixen! Now Kamei! Now Iwahara, Kawashima and Kakuda!
Over the course of the last year, I added more and more of the craftspeople at the KCG until I was on the list for 7 of the 8 boxes (sorry Fumio, I really did mean to add yours as well……). As in the past, I chose to resist the temptation of opening the boxes upon arrival, opting instead to hold out for Christmas morning. My mother-in-law always gets a kick out of seeing them, and it is one of the rare times when I can get my teenage son to look at something I like for a moment or two. Most importantly, the anticipation is fun and this year’s boxes did not disappoint! As is to be expected, all puzzles reflect the brilliant standards of Karakuri puzzles, working smoothly and looking even more striking upon close examination.
Pics of the boxes have been making the rounds on social media, and I wanted to break my too-long blogging hiatus with a review of (most of) this year’s boxes. For those who are not aware, the names of most of the boxes have not yet been released and can be expected in January.
Kamei’s box resembles a classic safe (3.5″ x 3″ x 4.5″): four tiny legs beneath an upright, rectangle, complete with notched dial that seems to spin freely. Picking it up, you can hear one or more somethings moving around inside. Kamei’s hanko is on the back of the box; it is pretty clear when you have solved the box and seeing the hanko on its outside helps to confirm that you are not missing anything once it is open. Finding the right approach took a bit of creative cat burgling – of all the boxes, this is the one that gave me the most trouble. I was pretty sure I knew what to do at the outset, at least to some extent, and while it turned out to be correct, executing it still takes a bit of focus. I’ve heard from other puzzles who are similarly confounded by how specifically it works, in some ways feeling similar to other boxes of Kamei’s that rely on mechanisms that make little sense, until they make total sense – while you may yet continue to struggle to understand how the concept is realized, you can at least understand what is happening. Of this year’s boxes, this is the one whose internal layout most confounds me.
Kawashima’s box was one of my personal favorites (even if I do feel like there is one small change that could have made it even better in my mind). It is the only puzzle this year to resemble a classic box (albeit a small one at slightly less than 3″). One panel is light colored, calling your attention to what will presumably be your goal. Kawashima may be guiding us a bit here, as it is pretty simple to make initial success, leading you through a few productive steps until you hit a wall hiding a couple added tricks that block you from further progress. Kawashima’s hanko awaits you when you reach the final compartment, after a nice, progressive solution. The box displays well with Iwahara’s 2019 holiday gift: Aquarius Box, which is slightly larger but features a similar aesthetic.
Iwahara’s Drawer (3.5″ x 3.5″ x 2.5″) is the box that offers the most puzzling, with an appearance that resembles this year’s Drawer with a Tree but features puzzling that is quite different. The hanko is important with this puzzle, as I briefly thought I had solved it after finding a fun series of steps to open and close it, before realizing I had not yet seen his mark. Some further exploration led to a happy, second aha as the fun-to-do mechanism is expressed in yet another step. The concept is well-executed, and it is the type of mechanism that I find fun to pick up and solve here and there; I have little doubt that this box will join the ranks of other fidget-friendly karakuri boxes that currently sit on my shelves. The puzzle has the added bonus of smelling particularly good, only increasing its re-solve value.
Kasho’s box features a UFO that spins elliptically above the whimsical crop circles adorning a flattened cube (approx. 2.5″ x 3″). At first glance, I thought it was a safari hat atop a button, which made decidedly less sense. It is pretty clear what to do at first, and opening the box is rather straightforward. However, the brilliance of this puzzle really takes a bit of imagination – this is the box that has perhaps grown on me the most, as I have stepped back to observe the solution and the kind of scene the craftsman was perhaps imagining. Basically, I have come to see that the entire experience encapsulates a story and I hope this is something that has occurred to other puzzlers, because, to me, it is what really makes this unique (happy to share this with anyone who wants to know, but I don’t want to give any spoilers here). There is one particular design detail that I especially like, and which perfectly finished the concept at play in the puzzle’s solution. I had high expectations for his box this year as his was my favorite of 2019; to be honest, I was a bit let down at first but, as I said, this is the puzzle that has most grown on me as I have (I think) gotten into the maker’s head a bit more, discovering the story the puzzle is (I think) intended to tell.
Once again, I had some wildly incorrect initial impressions, thinking this was an odd-looking snake-train thing (4″ x 1.5″ x 2.25″) whose tongue had fallen out. I don’t know where my mind is sometimes but once I was able to break through my dumbassery, I realized what was what and actually laughed out loud (rolling on the floor with a puzzle seems foolhardy and excessive). Realizing what it is, the way forward is pretty clear while being no less enjoyable for it. This is another fidget-friendly box that should not be overlooked; I think it requires some precise craftsmanship that may bely its playful appearance.
Kikuchi’s is the only box to directly reference the Christmas season; last year’s box featured a Christmas tree and this year’s box is a stocking (3.25″ x 1.75″ x 4.25″) stuffed full of presents! It is decidedly adorable and has a multi-step solution that is simple but fun and, once again, quite fidget-friendly. Kikuchi is the least prolific of the KCG members and this is the first puzzle of his to make its way into my collection. I didn’t realize it, but he has the most punk of the KCG hankos, eschewing traditional Japanese characters for a more stylized signature.
Yoh delivers on our animalistic expectations, with an adorable Wombat (3″ x 4″ x 1.75″) that is not only entertaining, but educational! I don’t want to give anything away, but after a couple straightforward steps, you are rewarded with a funny (and perhaps questionably desirable) reward. A conversation about the puzzle led me to google a particular fact about the Wombat, which has led me to be surprised that no other designer (to my knowledge) has taken advantage of this fun mammalian fact. Yoh’s hanko is displayed on the bottom of the puzzle, which led to a bit of confusion in more than one puzzler, as I heard a few folks may have thought they had solved the puzzle prematurely (which is pretty cool, as it features fair more fun than one first figured). Kakuda’s Wombat is adorable and smart, and packs an excellent punchline.