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.
(scroll down for the puzzle box reviews if you do not want to hear my partially-informed mini-history lesson)
Why Puzzle Boxes?
“Solving the IMPOSSIBLE COFFEE CUP Box!”
“Opening the AMAZING ANTIQUE RADIO Puzzle!”
There is a reason these lures work, and it is not just the excessive use of capitalization and exclamation: to most, if not all, of us self-proclaimed puzzlers, the seemingly inaccessible compartment is a silent promise, a tacit seduction through the placid excitement of discovery, the inevitable and elusive “a-ha” both its premise and its resolution. It is the youthful desire to reach the cupboard within which lie cookies, the ancient drive to see beyond where there be dragons, the adolescent fascination with spy-craft and Goonie gadgetry, the absurd adult illusion of control and reason. Regardless of who or what we are, of what we have or where we come from, the Solution has become the mature repose that awaits us if only we can understand How It Works, if we can grok the secret simplicity lying behind an elegantly explicit deception, if we can build the mechanical bridges that lead us there.
To put it plainly: puzzle boxes are cool.
And just as the history of the modern puzzle box can be traced to Japan, so too can many of the coolest be found there, from a collective of Japanese artisans known as the Karakuri Creation Group (KCG): their works are beautifully made, with exquisite craftsmanship belying their ingenious mechanisms, ranging from whimsical and playful, to challenging and mystifying.
Several years ago, as I was obsessively compiling Pinterest tomes of hidden rooms and secret passageways, I stumbled upon somewhat similar clickbait to that mentioned above; the screamingly bothersome caps ignored, my eyes fell upon the exquisite woods of objects, some clearly shaped like a box, others far from it, all of which promised the recently ranted poetry of puzzling. My inner Indiana awakened, my submerged Data drawn from the depths (the spelunking child, not the cyborg), until what was a shallow swim into other people’s excessive home improvement projects became a deep dive into a previously unknown world of challenges and frustrations: I was forever Puzzled.
One of the best decisions I have made, a list which is rather depressingly short, was to avoid solution vids early on; in a rare feat of self-control and precognitive consideration, I rightly held off in the hopes that some of these might one day make their way into my hands. Many and most have yet to do so, but the wait is surely worth it if only for those few that have or will because, for me, puzzling will forever be inextricably linked with Karakuri. Not just because they were some of the first I found, and not just because they are the direct evolution of the bulk of the puzzle box’s history, but simply because they are, to once again emphasize perhaps the most important takeaway of this rather rambly article, forking cool.
(please know that any mistakes, should they exist, are mine alone)
The Samurai of Edo Japan could not guarantee safe passage for all those making their way along the well-worn roads between Tokyo and Osaka. As horses drew their precious belongings through the Hakone mountains, merchants, nobility and commoners alike feared the presence of the Highwaymen preying upon unwary travelers seeking safe passage through the embrace of Mt. Fuji.
Inspired by the diverse variety of trees in the region, artisans responded to this need for secrecy by applying the ingenuity of the neo-Confucianist intellectual rigor alive at the time. Newly developed architectural principles used to enable buildings to withstand the frequent earthquakes of the country were scaled down and integrated into small, personal items. In the middle of the 19th Century, markets began to sell Shikake-Bako, or trick boxes, where workers could hide valuable tools and property in compartments hidden within otherwise ordinary boxes and small, Tansu chests. The novelty of the Shikake-Bako reached the ears of merchants and nobility and, eventually, Japan’s newly developed leisure class turned its hungry gaze upon them, leading to the development of increasingly difficult mechanisms. In the 1870’s, Takagoro Okawa (and others) began integrating the Yosegi marquetry and Zougan art popular at the time, creating the Himitsu-Bako, or personal secret box. These traditional puzzle boxes use a series of sliding panels to unlock one or more compartments and continue to be produced today.
Fast forward a century or so, and the KCG is created, helping to evolve the traditional puzzle box into the post-modern era, bringing craftsmen and women together to make ever more unique and tricky mechanisms, pushing the definition of what constitutes a “box” and playing upon the assumptions we make when thinking of the comparative simplicity of the traditional Himitsu-Bako’s sliding panels. The word Karakuri, literally mechanism, was the term used to describe the mechanical automatons that date as far back as the 17th Century; the word is now synonymous with the mechanical puzzle box and has helped birth the strange and wonderful works of makers across the globe.
The KCG has grown to include 10 Japanese craftsmen and women (as well as six “friends,” including a single non-Japanese puzzle-maker, the talented Kagen Sound). These creators all bring their own unique style and perspective to puzzle-box-making, continuing to challenge our assumptions and experiences, crafting boxes that range from whimsical pieces solved with a single, sometimes somewhat simple, yet oftentimes elusive, step, to boxes using challenging and mystifying mechanisms that unlock multiple compartments, some requiring hundreds of steps to fully solve.
To me, as to many puzzlers, Karakuri constitute many of the most sought-after puzzle boxes, among the unicorniest of unicorns; and yet, from time to time, I will hear a puzzler or two express doubt that their boxes can be challenging or unique when they “just” use moving panels. I hear this and think that the same could be said for burrs, which “just” use sticks with pieces missing. I am fully aware of the fact that, at one time, I wondered what was so interesting about packing puzzles, when it is a matter of “just” putting these into that. To such a skeptic, I can say with certainty that it is only a matter of finding the right box by the right craftsman to make you into a believer.
Karakuri are not “just” anything: even at their least compelling, they are beautiful examples of woodworking, even if only relying on one or two simple, yet elegant, movements to open. Starting from this foundation, their boxes grow ever more complex and unique, integrating concepts derived from physics and math, utilizing complex woodworking skills to challenge puzzlers with magnets and dead ends, using our own assumptions against us. They are continuously evolving the craft with new concepts and principles, pushing the puzzle-maker to break new ground and, when they have run out of ground, to meticulously make more so that it, too, can be broken.
It seems like every day someone new is not asking me about the boxes made by the Karakuri Creation Group: Which small box is best? What are the New Secret Boxes (NSB)? Are these worth getting? Who are you talking to? Is anyone actually still reading this? Well, it is about time that someone sit down and talk about the different boxes – and, if I have learned anything over the last 40+ years, it is that I am someone, so why not be that someone.
I will start by clarifying that while the boxes I am reviewing here are based on the designs of the KCG members (Kamei more than any other), they are not actually made by them – they are instead crafted by apprentices under the direction and oversight of KCG members (afaik). This allows them to be produced more regularly while still maintaining the high quality we expect from KCG creations – as they are not limited releases, they are easier to find and cheaper to buy, making them an excellent introduction to the KCG. Hopefully, this guide will help you to determine which of these creations you are interested in. I am not going to give away any solutions and will focus on the puzzling experience; I will walk carefully so as to reveal as little as possible and err on the side of caution:
Small Boxes 1 – 8:
Small Box 1 (walnut & magnolia, 47mm, 3 steps): Excellent introduction to modern Japanese puzzle boxes, as it uses a modern take on somewhat traditional movements. Once you find the first, well-hidden step, the next steps have a way of going against your assumptions. It still amazes me how difficult it can be to find something that will move, whether by touch or by sight.
Small Box 2 (cherry & magnolia, 42mm x 47mm x 60mm, 2 steps): Another great box, the first step is quite different from Small Box 1, and hides itself well. You will need a different approach to be able to make progress, although the second step is a bit straightforward. Some may find it a bit similar to a box made by a well-known American puzzle-maker.
Small Box 3 (walnut & magnolia, 42mm x 47mm x 60mm, 3 steps): Also great, its well-hidden start is followed by an unexpected second move that requires some out of the box thinking. Somewhat similar to Small Box 1, while taking you along a very different path.
Small Box 4 (zelkova, 48mm, x 42mm, 1 step): Based on Akio Kamei’s Box with a Ribbon (P-27, 1996), this relies on a mechanism that is rather unloved by many puzzlers. Nonetheless, it is well-executed and quite satisfying when done correctly. Unlike boxes 1-3, it is not solidly smooth all the way around, and resembles a box within a box from the bottom.
(scroll down to see a pic of the bottom of the box)
Small Box 5 (maple, 48mm, x 42mm, 2-3 steps): Based on Akio Kamei’s Cosmox (M-17, 1990), this is the only small box that makes noise due to some (intentionally) loose internal parts. Its mechanism is quite different from the rest of the series and is a good example of how some boxes must be experimented with a bit to fully understand how it works, even after it has been solved. From the bottom, it resembles a box within a box (similar to 4).
(scroll down to see a pic of the bottom of the box)
Small Box 6 (walnut, 47mm x 42mm, 2 steps): Based on Akio Kamei’s Top Box 1 (M-5-1, 1983), this uses a mechanism that is perhaps even more maligned than that used in box 4. Nonetheless, its walnut construction is quite lovely. From the bottom, it resembles a box within a box (similar to 4 & 5).
(scroll down to see a pic of the bottom of the box)
Small Box 7 (cherry & magnolia, 50mm x 40mm, 3 steps): Based on Akio Kamei’s Small Box 3 (M-24-3, 2002), this was the first Karakuri box I got and is still perhaps my favorite of the small box series. Its first step is a great example of how a puzzle box can hide something right in front of you. The final step is rather unexpected and is simultaneously unique and common.
Small Box 8 (zelkova & walnut, 58mm, 2 steps): Based on Akio Kamei’s 3D Box (K-20, 1996), this is otherwise known as “the small box that looks totally different from the other small boxes.” Unsurprisingly, its solution is quite different from the rest of the series; as you may have guessed, the burr-like sticks must be manipulated in coordination in order to find and open its hidden compartment. This is definitely one of the best of the series and unfortunately does not seem to be remade as often (at the time of this writing, it is available at Mr. Puzzle).
Cube Boxes 1-4:
Cube Box 1 (zelkova, maple & katsura, 60mm, 3 steps): The Cube Boxes are perhaps a bit less diverse and more consistent than the small boxes, incorporating visual clues into fun solutions that are somewhat more traditional. Box 1 is an excellent example of the close tolerances KCG can create, with the final step moving so smoothly as to be almost vacuum-sealed (mine actually makes a nice “pop” sound when it opens).
Cube Box 2 (wenge, maple & katsura, 60mm, 5 steps): Similar to Cube 1, this also has satisfyingly close tolerances. The solution is a bit more complex as the steps must follow a more defined path.
Cube Box 3 (walnut, maple & katsura, 60mm, 2 steps): This solution is quite different from the rest of the series, with a final state that I find to be aesthetically pleasing. This is one of my favorites of the series, as I find it oddly pleasurable to open and close.
Cube Box 4 (chanchin, maple & katsura, 60mm, 4 steps): This is probably my favorite of the series: the first steps are similar to Cube 1 but the final step is pretty neat, taking an approach to accessing the internal compartment that is different from the rest of the series. The final state is kind of cool and the final movement itself is fairly counter-intuitive.
New Secret Boxes 1-4:
Unlike the series described above, the New Secret Boxes all share similar solutions: the difference is one of complexity: the first box has 6 steps, the second has 12 steps, the third has 18 steps, and the fourth has 32 steps (note that each requires that many steps to open and then again to close, albeit in reverse order). These are perhaps the closest to traditional boxes, except that all six panels move (as opposed to only four panels in traditional boxes). Boxes 1-3 are more or less straightforward, following a fairly direct route from start to end. Box 4 is significantly more complicated, its moves following a binary pattern that must be discovered and which has been described by many as being a fun challenge (full disclosure: I have not actually tried it). The boxes are all the same size (80mm) and share an aesthetic, with the number of stripes on its exterior indicating which of the series it is. All are well made and the interior allows you to see the types of complex wood cuts that are needed to create the sliding panels on which the puzzle is based.
Standalones: Double Box, Trick Door, and Expansion
Double Box (cherry & walnut, 4 steps): Based on Akio Kamei’s Double Box (M-47, 2016), this uses a simplified version of the mechanism used in the classic Pentagon Box (M-8, orig. 1984); like Pentagon, it features a lid that can be freely removed (no tricks). Although it is not particularly complex, it is an example of how Karakuri boxes can be playful, messing with our ideas of what defines a box. While this is not one of my favorite KCG creations, I appreciate how you must use something generally intended to close a box in order to open it (or, as Kamei said in his description of Pentagon, “When you cover the lid, you can open the box. But when you take off the lid, you can close the box”).
(scroll down to see pics of Double Box without the removable lid)
Trick Door (walnut, 1 step): This recreates a full-size trick door that stands at the entrance to the Karakuri museum in Hakone; a digital version was used to access the old Karakuri website. It can take an embarrassingly long time to figure out the way to open the door, particularly for those unaccustomed to trick boxes. It is a classic example of using our expectations against us. It is not only fun, but great to hand to non-puzzlers, as it is sure to elicit in them the famed self-smacking of foreheads once shown the simple solution they likely failed to find.
Expansion (maple, zelkova, walnut & black cherry, 4 steps): I saved the best for last! This 2020 release is based on Akio Kamei’s Expansion I (M-44-1, 2012), which is the first of a series of expansion boxes with different mechanisms based on the same concept. First, this is a beautiful box; I generally prefer darker woods, but the contrasting colors used are striking. More importantly, the main step is just plain fun – the first time I did it, I actually giggled – I have Kamei’s Expansion IV and, honestly, I may enjoy this one even more! Beyond that first step, the solution takes an interesting step or two before you can find and open the hidden compartment; it is possible to go back and forth on the first step without finding the direction you need to take. While not necessarily difficult, it has an added layer of complexity that adds more depth to the box, as the puzzle forces you to look more closely to better understand it before you can fully solve it. This is still available (at the time of this writing).
Hopefully this post will help someone decide whether or not they want to try Karakuri puzzles and orient them towards those boxes that might be more to their liking. I wanted to write something that could be especially helpful to newer puzzlers and, to that end, this (already too long) post would not be complete without a bit about club membership: the KCG site can be confusing and I have heard a lot of misunderstanding about how membership works and why one would join. To me, joining is a no-brainer: you will never get KCG member-made boxes at a better price and it is super fun to get some surprises come the holidays.
Each year, the active Karakuri members (currently all but Miyamoto and Ninomiya) create a puzzle box for the holidays; we do not know what it is until it arrives. Puzzlers try to maintain a strict post-no-pictures rule until after the holidays, as some of us like to leave them unopened for a surprise come present-time (assuming you’re into that). As an added mini-puzzle, we do not even know which member made what until a month or so later, so it can be fun trying to guess which box is from which maker – this is sometimes obvious, but oftentimes not (unless you check the maker’s hanko, which is their Japanese “signature” found once you have fully solved the puzzle, particularly helpful if a box has more than one compartment).
There is an annual fee of 12,500 yen (approx. $120), which gets you a box from a single member of your choosing. Some of the boxes may be available after the holidays have passed, but many will never be made again. You can also add boxes from other members for an additional 10,000 yen (approx. $95). The first year there is an additional one-time fee of 6,250 yen (approx. $60); new members receive a copy of the “Karakuri Art Works” book with high quality pictures and descriptions of all Karakuri creations since 1999 in English and Japanese; it will come with supplementary pages for works created after 2017 (additional annual supplements are sent to members once the holidays have passed). This one-time fee is basically the cost of the book, which retails for 5,625 yen (approx. $50).
In addition, membership includes free shipping (worldwide, afaik) on all purchases; amazingly, their boxes will usually be delivered to the US only 2 or 3 days after ordering (even now, amidst Covid, it generally takes less than a week). Perhaps more importantly, membership grants you access to the lotteries for new releases, which come out a few times a year and are generally more complex than the holiday boxes. As they are limited releases (many will never be made again), there is oftentimes more demand than supply; the lottery allows members to order one or more of the new boxes, with payment to be automatically processed if and when they win the lottery (no, these are not free boxes – you are winning the chance to buy them). If there are any copies left over, they will be made publicly available.
As you can probably tell, I love Karakuri boxes. As a collector, their beauty and elegance amazes me and I enjoy re-solving them: sometimes I may not remember exactly how to solve it, but more often I know how it works and am just enjoying the mechanisms. Some puzzlers are less inclined to collect, and are primarily Solvers – to them, Karakuri may not always be satisfying. While some Karakuri are certainly challenging, some Solvers may balk at what they see as poor time per $ puzzling value; you can certainly find less expensive puzzles that will sometimes take longer to solve (Hanamayas are a great example). However, some of the “easiest” Karakuri rely on truly amazing and inspired tricks that will delight most any puzzle fan, even if it doesn’t take hours to figure out. Regardless, I think that everyone will recognize that Karakuri boxes are of amazing quality, their value found not only as puzzles but as works of art. Hopefully this post may have helped the one or two people who actually made it all the way to the end to decide whether or which works appeal to their puzzling sensibilities – if not, it was probably a terrible use of my time, which could therefore have been better spent trying to finally finish solving Turtle Trip, Wishing Well, or Secretum Cista, or even doing that other thing, what’s it called… the thing that actually makes money so I can buy puzzles and keep my family living indoors… you know what I mean. Word? No, thats not it…. Ummmm… work! Yeah, that.
Akio Kamei and Shou Sugimoto, 11th Annual Idea Contest Winner, June 2019 Designed by Ichiro Sato
The newest puzzle box from Karakuri master Akio Kamei and Shou Sugimoto is based on a winning design of the 11th Annual Karakuri Idea Contest from Ichiro Sato. This trick box is made of Oak and Magnolia, and is a whimsical take on waiting for a train to pass, and the secrets that lurk beneath the surface, a comment on the underlying depravity of urban life and the innate search for escape…. well, maybe not, but the wood and whimsy are correct.
Not the hardest puzzle box from the Karakuri Group, as some of the more fun creations tend to be, but it still requires some creative thinking to make the few steps required to open the compartment beneath the tracks. It is pretty big and heavy, a puzzle box with some mass and heft to it, and one that looks great on my shelf, amongst its wooden friends.
And how fun it must have been for my wife to see her grown husband sitting on the floor playing train! I may have even allowed a choo-choo or two to escape my lips as I tried and failed and tried again, before showing my wife with glee the solution, complete with an imagined scene for full effect (“picture yourself in your car, the bells ringing to warn of the approaching train, searching for the correct steps that will allow you to gain access to the safety of the hidden compartment beneath your feet…..” – super cool, I know).
If you manage to get your hands on one, enjoy its weight and the light-hearted fun it carries. And let yourself play for a minute.