A Box, a Burr, and a Ball walk into a bar…

Burr Puzzle (with Yosegi ball inside)

Yoshiyuki Ninomiya, 2013
Burr 116×116×116 ㎜
        Box 140×140×142 ㎜
Walnut, Senn (Castor Aralia), Yosegi

In case you’re not aware, Ninomiya’s boxes are awesome. While he unfortunately was not as prolific a creator as others at the Karakuri Group (I wrote more about the Group here, if you’re interested), he still managed to make some of the most beautiful boxes produced by them (which is saying a lot). Even more unfortunately, he is not producing puzzles anymore; other than the occasional yosegi bookmark (which are great), I am not aware that he is making anything else (which is rather unsurprising as he is now 91 years old and has pretty much retired after about 75 years as a woodworker).

Recently, I managed to acquire one of his last Karakuri creations – a piece that I have been hoping to see for some time now. The appropriately named “Burr puzzle (with Yosegi ball inside)” includes one of very few burrs released by the Karakuri Group, which in and of itself makes it pretty cool. However, Karakuri are puzzle box-makers, and so, sure enough, the burr is trapped inside a puzzle box! That’s cool, too. If it ended there, I’d be happy with the puzzle. But Ninomiya adds a nice touch, adding a yosegi ball trapped inside the burr, which is of course trapped inside the box (which is now kept on my shelf).

The puzzle is quite large: the box is about 5.75″ and the twelve-piece burr is about 4.5″ (the ball is about 2″). This was the first thing I noticed, followed quickly by the excellent (and expected) workmanship. This is the 4th Ninomiya box I’ve acquired (alongside a few bookmarks) and the quality of his work continues to blow me away.

The box has circular windows on each of its 4 sides, allowing you to see the center of the burr with the ball held inside, perfectly placed for said perspective to be possible. Atop the box, there is a short, wooden hashtag (a/k/a tic-tac-toe or ye olde number sign), comprised of contrasting woods and featuring a small yosegi square (delightfully tipped on a corner to offset the square center of the symbol in which it sits). The piece is able to spin and its dimensions clearly establish that it was designed to allow the burr to sit atop it, the outer squares placed at the exact dimensions of the four pillars of the burr; the spin allows you to view all sides of the burr, which is, again, pretty darn cool. This allows all aspects of the puzzle to be seen clearly when kept on the display platform (as I prefer to keep it).

The box isn’t overly difficult, with 3 or 4 steps to open; I found the burr to be quite original (although admittedly my experience with burrs is lacking when compared to many other puzzlers) and challenging enough to be fun but not so hard as to be frustrating. It has some unexpected moves to disassemble, and reassembly requires just the right amount of dexterity, focusing more on good old logic to get you back together. The ball is made with Japanese marquetry, with four “slices” of alternating woods, which brings the overall aesthetic together nicely, combining the light wood of the box with the dark wood of the burr. And of course, the ball also complicates reassembly of the burr, which must largely be constructed around it. Both the box and the burr feature Ninomiya’s hanko.

I’m quite pleased to have been fortunate enough to obtain a copy of this puzzle and have not been at all disappointed in finally getting my hands on one of my (admittedly many) Karakuri unicorns… now if I could just get a copy of my most unicorny of Ninomiya unicorns: Desk Diary (he said, blatantly promoting his own self-interest in the hopes that one of his fives of readers has a line on a copy).

Overall Grade: 5 Sinatras

(no hamsters were hurt in the making of this post)

I couldn’t think of a witty title for this post but the box is still super cool.

Kakoi

Shiro Tajima, 2016, Monarch Birch, Black Walnut and Japanese Cherry, 4” x 4” x 4”

Shiro Tajima was creating puzzle boxes with the Karakuri Group until a few years ago; his Hermit Crab and Goblet boxes are probably the most recognized of his boxes, as they have been produced in larger numbers. I reviewed his Uroboros box a few months ago (with one of the few solution vids I’ve done, as it was requested by a fellow puzzler). Kakoi is quite different, not only from Uroboros but from any box I’ve seen or done.

Kakoi consistently gets listed in community polls as being among puzzlers’ favorite boxes; in fact, it won the 2017 Nob Yoshigahara Puzzle Design Competition Jury Grand Prize, which is basically a long way of saying it’s a damn good puzzle. The only reason it likely doesn’t get an even better showing is simply due to its rarity.

It is a bit bigger than your typical Karakuri box and eschews the traditional panels for a look that is anything but traditional (or a panel). Your first impulse is pretty clear from looking at it and it does in fact lead to some success, or at least it seems to: this is one of those puzzles where movement early on doesn’t necessarily give you much info on how to proceed from there. While I have chosen not to post pics that display these early movements, a simple search will let you see some slight spoilers for said steps.

After futzing with it for a while, essentially just poking the same few things back and forth, I began to get a sense of what might be possible and started experimenting. This is one of those puzzles where things have to be juuuust right before you’re able to proceed, and it’s not so easy to see what that is until things are, in fact, just right, a tautological conundrum that helps to build the aha into something truly satisfactory.

One you find that perfect setting and the move it permits, the main movement is quite elegant and unique. Having accomplished this, it doesn’t take much to find the final steps, allowing you to access a total of four(!) hidden compartments.

Opening the compartments makes the puzzle impossible to close and it is pretty easy to get turned around such that knowing how to close it and actually doing so are not quite the same thing, at least for a few moments. This forces you to really look at how everything works together to first prevent and then permit the main movement. Once again you need to find the exact right arrangement before you can reverse the main step; when closing it you can really appreciate the close tolerances, a bit of a vacuum is even created, with the displaced air acting as excellent evidence of this precision.

Resetting the box is quite satisfying: enough so that Kakoi is among the puzzles that I have a tendency to re-solve most frequently. There is something about that main movement that I find to be so pleasant to do; the fine adjustments never seem to get easier, such that a moment of confusion feels inevitable with each run-through.

Shiro Tajima’s Kakoi is an excellent example of the uniqueness of Karakuri boxes; its aesthetic and movement stand apart from other boxes and offer an elegant and fun solution that relies on high levels of precision that others might sometimes struggle to obtain. If you happen to see this one available somewhere, I’d recommend considering it – it certainly sits comfortably amongst my favorite Karakuri.

Overall Grade: 5 Sinatras

(click here for more information on the Sinatra Scaling System, (c) John Maynard Keynes, 1944)

When is a Drawer not a Drawer? When it’s a Puzzle.

Surprising Drawer

Osamu Kasho, Keyaki (Zelkova), Magnolia, Wenge, 4.6″ x 4.6″ x 4.25″

Each year, the Karakuri Creation Group (KCG) has an Idea Contest, in which people (in Japan) are free to submit box ideas to the master craftspeople, who select a few to be produced and sold via lottery. Contest winners have a tendency to be comparatively simple, while telling a story or portraying something whimsical or odd. Some dork blogger (with a cool name) posted a video and review of last year’s He Can Not Get the Ball!, which backs this claim up (assuming he can be trusted).

This year, I was able to resist buying any of the Contest Winners; although some, including Osamu Kasho’s Surprising Drawers, certainly sounded intriguing, I did not initially succumb to temptation (shocking, I know – but 2020 is shaping up to be an especially expensive puzzling year and some lines must be drawn…. and redrawn…. and then moved back a bit). The KCG descriptions will sometimes contain clues to box solutions, at times to the point of giving too much away, but for Drawers it (mostly) just said: “I tried to express the joy of its movement more than the difficulty. This product might be one that you’ll want to open again and again.” This was a head-scratcher, for sure, but I somehow still managed to resist. On top of this, Kasho is fast becoming one of my preferred KCG members: his Bara Bara Box was my favorite of last year’s holiday gifts and my recently received Ripple Out turned out to be much much cooler than I had honestly thought it would be.

And so I waited. Patiently lurking about the puzzling fora, awaiting the imminent arrival of said boxes to the homes of unsuspecting collectors, whose opinion would soon be sought for the final determination of the satiation of my desire – which is to say, I waited until some people got theirs and asked what they thought of them to see if I should try to get some after all.

Haym H., puzzle designer, collector, and all around good guy, received his in short order and was especially taken by Surprising Drawers (or, at least, I was especially taken by what he said about them – he had good things to say about all the boxes, any of which is likely to be an excellent box). Due to my cyber-stalking of the KCG site, I was well aware that the boxes had not yet sold out (ed. although a couple other contest winners are still available at the time of this writing, all of which have also received praise, Drawers is now sold out), and jumped on it quickly. I had heard enough to know that the puzzle gods must be given their due, and I feared their wrath were they to be ignored (judging from the amount of unsolved puzzles around me, I may be feeling that wrath regardless).

As usual, the box arrived within a matter of days from Hakone. My first impression was that the box is bigger than I had expected. The Idea Contest winners I have had in the past have all been larger than most of their regular counterparts, but for some reason I had not expected this to be quite so massive. The craftsmanship is, as I expect from any KCG box, excellent – the wood feels satiny and solid and the drawers could easily pass as bedroom furniture for a very tiny person. There is a hole approximately the size of a quarter on the bottom of the box, through which a bit of magnolia can be seen and felt. The three drawers have handles made of wenge, whose darkness is a lovely contrast to the lighter Zelkova of which most of the box’s exterior is made. As one would expect from drawers, they all wiggle a bit, each moving independent of the others and feeling as though they should come right open. Of course, they do not….. as that would be, in the words of the Ancient Greeks, hella lame.

If you read any of my posts, you may come to the realization that my passion for puzzles far exceeds my skills with them – which is to say, wrath of the puzzle gods aside, I’m just not all that great at them sometimes. And while this box was said to not be difficult to open, I nonetheless struggled for longer than I should have, missing what now seems obvious and getting caught up in some misdirection stemming from my own assumptions. After wondering if it was broken for longer than I care to admit (a step that should be included in the solution of every good puzzle as surely as angrily resenting one’s decision to buy Ikea furniture should be included in the directions of every Skurpingdhenghenr nightstand sold), I soon found the first step, a relatively simple move that unlocks the solution, allowing me to…….. OMG!!!

I actually LOL’ed as it came open in a shockingly unexpected manner, looking around as if the ghosts of Christmas past might wish to share in my glee. I took the rare of step of demanding that my NPSO watch me open it (if she wanted to), and even she thought it was pretty cool. Closing the box took a little bit of thought as the solution seems, in more ways than one, to be physically impossible at first glance. After reflecting for a moment and observing how the pieces work together in such a simple and ingenious manner, designed so as to appear both obvious and impossible at the same time, it was clear how to reset the puzzle. At which point, I immediately opened it again. And then one more time. And several times since then…. and one more just now.

I am not exaggerating when I say that this has quickly become one of my favorite Karakuri and that I am grateful to Haym for sharing his impressions with me (and that there were still copies left!). I just opened it again and it still makes me smile! I may have to delve into the wondrous inner working of wordpress to discover how to write and post pics using spoiler tags; regardless, I will be sure to bring this box with me if and when our regular scheduled puzzle parties resume so that we might all bask in its puzzling glory together.

Originality Grade: 5 Sinatras

“Number 5 is Alive”

Asymmetric Cube

Hideaki Kawashima

The newest box from Karakuri member Hideaki Kawashima is the fifth in his Bars Box series, consisting of Bars Boxes I – IV, 2018 – 2019. Asymmetric Cube’s name is a
departure from the series and, while it continues to feature the series’ titular bars, its design represents the biggest leap forward yet.

Its asymmetric appearance is the first indication that Kawashima’s tendency to play with puzzler expectations is central to the box’s design. The series has always managed to both create and confound assumptions, something that is clear just from looking at his newest creation. As with each consecutive box in the series, the solution differs completely from that which preceded it, and the approach is unclear from the moment you pick it up.

Kawashima’s craftsmanship is as meticulous as ever, the potential location of breaks in any of the panels remaining unapparent even upon close inspection. For the first time since Bars Box I, he has eschewed the dominance of walnut in favor of alternating panels of different woods, further developing the asymmetric theme as their colors are unmatched from varied perspectives, with panels of three different woods framing the off-center bars visible at any given time. The box uses more woods than its previous siblings, featuring five woods: magnolia, purpleheart, padauk, zelkova, and maple, a design choice that reflects the box’s place as the fifth in the series. It may take a moment to notice another way in which the design directly reflects its place in the Bars Box series; forsaking the numbered sequence of titles used thus far, Kawashima has instead integrated this into the design itself, a small aha that can be enjoyed even without the pleasure of seeing the box in person.

Kawashima’s craftsmanship is as meticulous as ever, the potential location of breaks in any of the panels remaining unapparent even upon close inspection. For the first time since Bars Box I, he has eschewed the dominance of walnut in favor of alternating panels of different woods, further developing the asymmetric theme as their colors are unmatched from varied perspectives, with panels of three different woods framing the off-center bars visible at any given time. The box uses more woods than its previous siblings, featuring five woods: magnolia, purpleheart, padauk, zelkova, and maple, a design choice that reflects the box’s place as the fifth in the series. It may take a moment to notice another way in which the design directly reflects its place in the Bars Box series; forsaking the numbered sequence of titles used thus far, Kawashima has instead integrated this into the design itself, a small aha that can be enjoyed even without the pleasure of seeing the box in person.

It took me quite a while to find my way through to the center of Asymmetric Cube; the initial aha eluded me for longer than I would have expected and, having broken through to the foundation of the solution, I nonetheless got turned around, as with any well-designed Karakuri cube. The reveal is unique
as well, the final discoveries occurring in a manner as different from its predecessors as its aesthetic. Finally, upon reaching the end, Kawashima integrated additional design elements that are only visible upon reaching the solution; this is a somewhat rare addition adding some excellent detail work to surprise and welcome you to the box’s hidden compartment.

Kawashima’s fifth entry in the Bars Box series is a more nuanced and complex design than used in previous installments, as should be expected from a non-holiday release that carries a concomitantly higher price tag. It is, by far, the best yet of the series and sits as one of the best Kawashima boxes overall that I have had the pleasure of solving, showing that his puzzling design skills have only continued to grow more nuanced with time.