It’s a Karakuri Miracle! Holiday Boxes 2020

Karakuri Holiday Boxes 2020

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).

Back Row (Left to Right): Kawashima, Kamei, Kikuchi, Iwahara, Kasho; Front Row: Sugimoto, Kakuda

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.

Akio Kamei

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.


Hideaki Kawashima

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.


Hiroshi Iwahara

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.


Osamu Kasho

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.

Kasho’s 2020 and 2019 Holiday Boxes

Shou Sugimoto

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.


Yasuaki Kikuchi

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.

This could well be upside-down and/or sideways but is pretty cool from any angle.

Yoh Kakuda

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.


Overall Grade for Holiday Puzzles: Five Sinatras

Now that 2020 is done, we can start gearing up for next year (Fumio, I won’t forget you this time):

Happy New Year my tens of imaginary friends and readers! Thank you for reading and believing my opinion is worth a damn!

2020 was a weird year but oddly enough, it was an excellent year for puzzles – so many new releases from great designers, and great puzzles from new ones. I finally got rid of all those paper things that were cluttering up my puzzle shelves and installed a secret door leading to my puzzle room (well, home office, but you know where my priorities lie).

May 2021 be better generally, that puzzle parties might once more resume (and other social stuff as well…. I guess…. I mostly just care about the puzzle parties).

2020 Grade: A Bishop and a Lawrence (ugh)

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)

The (not really) Definitive Guide to the Karakuri Creation Group: A Brief History, Puzzle Box Reviews, and a Word on Club Membership

Small Box 1-8, Cube Box 1-4, New Secret Box 1-4, Double Box, Trick Door & Expansion

Karakuri Creation Group (KCG)
(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.

A Brief History

(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.

KCG Puzzle Box Reviews

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.

(scroll down to see pics of the “real” Trick Door at the Karakuri Museum)

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).

Conclusion and a Word about Club Membership

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.

Trick Door & the “Real” Door at the Karakuri Museum

Front of Small Boxes 1-8 and the Bottoms of Small Boxes 4-6

Double Box’s Lid is Removable (no tricks)

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

A Puzzle with a View

Ansel

PuzzledWolf, Walnut

The Silver Age of Puzzling is surely upon us; perhaps Puzzle Renaissance is more accurate. The Golden Age would be that time a decade or two in the past when mechanical puzzles began showing up more and more, with amazing makers making amazing puzzles, almost all of which are now unicorns. However, the puzzle world was perhaps more limited: fewer makers, fewer collectors, fewer puzzles, fewer dollars……

With YouTubers encouraging a growing awareness of mechanical puzzles, an increasing number of people are being drawn into the puzzling world – the initial interest fostered by the growing presence on Reddit and (of course) Discord (go team!). This has brought more makers out of the woodwork (sorry) as the demand for new and unique puzzles grows:

Cue PuzzledWolf, busting out with Ansel: The List (LIST!!!) was born in May with shipping and public sale soon starting in June (2020). (There are plans for additional releases at the time of this writing, with a likely hiatus to allow for the development of future puzzles)

Ansel itself is a wooden rectangle with a relatively slight depth, its appearance a line-drawing take on a classic camera (and we can now understand its name). The puzzle’s goal is extremely unique: the camera’s view-finder is stuck and we need to open it. This makes classifying it a bit tricky: its thematic journey has the feel of an SD take-apart but really the goal is the most puzzle-y of puzzle goals: move this bit of wood here to just a little bit over there! (A Puzzler can most definitely appreciate the joy of figuring out how to move a piece of wood a couple inches and doing so here is extremely satisfying)

I would be remiss if I did not reflect momentarily upon the puzzle’s presentation: PW pulled out all the stops, branded by an eye-catching color and distinct wolf mark adorning a custom box intentionally made with Ansel in mind.

Pretty much everyone I’ve heard speak of Ansel got stuck right off the bat, taking some time to find what is one of my favorite first steps in a while: I thought it was one thing or another and it turned out to be a totally different thing and even though I generally like being able to make a little bit of progress before getting stuck, the sneakiness of it makes me smile. The early struggle satisfyingly resolved, one can move on to a bit of study: patient observation mixed with trial and error as you work your way through the puzzle, which still has some surprises up its lens.

Resetting Ansel is relatively straightforward (following the obligatory photo of a pet or puzzle through its now-open viewfinder). I found myself fidgeting with it after solving it and have picked it up several times since to enjoy one moment in particular.

Ansel is quite original, very well-made, and offers really good puzzling at a great price point. It’s thematic and has an aesthetic that is readily recognizable as a puzzle while also being totally different from pretty much anything I’ve seen before. I look forward to PuzzledWolf’s (hopefully relatively imminent) follow-up to Ansel – a Washing Machine puzzle currently in development, which seems to maintain some aesthetic consistency with Ansel while also appearing totally unique, which is itself pretty cool (perhaps to be called the Alva after none other than Alva Fisher, the man sometimes considered to be the inventor of the electric washing machine, apparently unjustly but it sounds cool as a name and is quite wonderfully alliterative….. and yes, I had to look that up).

Originality and Presentation: Five Sinatras

Difficulty: Four Sinatras

Midcentury American Photography Signification: One Adams

“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.

No, I Don’t Think He is Dead

He Can Not Get the Ball!

Yoh Kakuda and Yasuaki Kikuchi

He Can Not Get the Ball! is a winner of the 11th Annual Karakuri Idea Contest. This box was built by Yoh Kakuda and Yasuaki Kikuchi out of oak and cherry, based on an original idea by Masaki Ohnishi,

The puzzle depicts a moment in which most people have found themselves on at least one occasion – arm stretched out under a dresser, cheek pressed to the floor, face turned so you can get as far in as possible, fingers just brushing the elusive item, still just a bit too far out of reach. Fortunately, the artisans have left us an unattached baseball bat and broom to help us in our quest.

Perhaps the best detail in this puzzle is the tiny baseball that can be seen deep under the dresser – but only if you get your eyes level with the bottom of the dresser. This “hidden” feature really makes this puzzle for me, as it puts the puzzler in the place of the child.

You will notice that the child’s eyes are X’ed out. I am not sure why this is, except perhaps to imply that this poor child died while struggling to regain his lost ball. A tragic end to a common situation. But while we may be too late to save this tiny wooden person, we can at least get his ball! Well, no, actually we can’t…… but we can open his dresser! This is, after all, a puzzle box, albeit a rather simple one.

As with many Karakuri (but certainly not all), the solution is rather straightforward, fitting thematically into the concept of the puzzle, easily deduced from the situation being depicted. However, this collector’s piece is exquisitely made and is surprisingly fun to solve.

The video features the solution following a short spoiler break. As with my last post, this may not be a puzzle that will appeal to a pure solver, but it is one that looks wonderful in my collection – if you are a collector, I definitely recommend getting one of these, if you have the chance.

The Tail of the Uroboros Puzzle Box

Uroboros

Shiro Tajima

Check out the Uroboros box from Shiro Tajima of the Karakuri Creation Group, made in 2012. This is my first video that includes me solving the puzzle.

It is not an overly difficult box, but it has a couple tricky-ish steps that utilize some cool movements. As with many Karakuri boxes, the beauty of the piece itself is as important as the mechanisms, and this box does not disappoint.

The video includes a spoiler break halfway through, so if you do not want to see me solve it, make sure to close it out at the break.

I went back and forth on whether I should post videos of my solving puzzles – I generally do not watch solves unless it is a box I have already solved. Early on, I watched some videos of puzzles I thought I might never get, only to find myself with the opportunity to get it or to solve it. However, if you are purely a Solver focused on puzzling time per $ spent, then this may not be something that will appeal to you.

For collectors out there, on the other hand, this is a really nice box, and a welcome addition to my own collection.

The Uroboros is a snake that is forever eating its own tail – it is a symbol of regeneration and renewal that dates back to Ancient Egypt and was adopted by the Ancient Greeks and, eventually, the Gnostics and alchemists. Tajima made this when he was doing a series of puzzles to reflect the Chinese Zodiac – this was made ahead of 2013, the Year of the Snake, following up on his Dragon Wing box.

Hope you enjoy the video!