Kanagawa: Untangling secrets of Hakone’s puzzle boxes

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Visitors shake puzzle boxes as they try to open them at the Hakone Karakuri Museum in Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture.

HAKONE, Kanagawa Pref. — At the Hakone Karakuri Museum, guests turn into puzzle solvers. They can hold, tap, push and shake a variety of ornate wooden puzzle boxes. When the steps are done in the right order, it will open up and the guest can know they have cracked the puzzle.

I picked up a puzzle box, but did not hit upon the proper steps. The wooden contraption wouldn’t open. Feeling like a kid again, I lost track of time trying to get to the bottom of the puzzle box.

Teruchika Maruyama, 83, the former president of Hakone Maruyama Bussan, a Hakone yosegi parquetry shop, established the museum in 2013 across the street from the shop. Maruyama’s eldest son, Ichiro, 55, now passes on parquetry’s appeal of fitting wood together in geometric patterns in the Hakone style, which has been designated as a national traditional handicraft.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Some puzzle boxes are shaped like an egg or radio.

Typically covered in bewilderingly beautiful mosaic patterns, Hakone puzzle boxes are comprised of wooden pieces with grooves and ridges that cannot be smoothly opened unless the lid and sides are moved in the correct order. They are said to have been invented by a craftsman making wooden furniture and components in the town’s Hakone-Yumoto district around 1894. The museum exhibits about 100 of the items, including Maruyama’s collection, as well as the works of modern artisans.

Visitors can touch most of the exhibits on display and many of the boxes can be opened with a few to about a dozen steps — except for one that requires a staggering 1,536 steps. If used to stockpile savings, such puzzles can act as safeguards against reckless withdrawals.

Aside from complex boxes, more playful versions have been created to resemble radios or eggs, and guests are welcome to try their luck at opening die-shaped ones, which can only be opened in an unexpected way.

If visitors get stuck trying to solve the puzzles, staff are available to offer guidance.

The museum also exhibits “puzzle furniture” — desks and chests built with techniques derived from the puzzle boxes — and there’s also a workshop that teaches guests how to make their own puzzle boxes.

The museum provides the distinctive opportunity to learn more about the sophistication of traditional crafts as well as Japanese puzzle culture.

“Puzzle boxes are highly appreciated overseas,” Ichiro Maruyama said. “I want many people to come in contact with these traditional crafts that Japan is proud of and feel the excitement of opening them.”

Another point of interest is the museum’s wooden front door, which also has some tricks embedded in it.

By passing through this door, a visitor can stimulate their intellectual curiosity, focus their mind, and open up some secrets around them.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Even opening the museum’s entrance door requires solving a puzzle.