Monday, June 15, 2015

Improved Japanese

The Japanese puzzle box has its origins in the Hakone – Odawara mountain region of Japan over 100 years ago.  The region is home to numerous species of colorful hard woods, and has been a center for woodwork in Japan for centuries.  The boxes, known as “himitsu-bako” (personal-secret), emerged as a practical way to safeguard personal valuables.  A unique style of marquetry was also invented there, called “yosegi-zaiku”, which involves creating geometric mosaic patterns with the colorful natural woods which are then planed into paper thin layers. These layers are applied to various wooden crafts like wrapping paper, including the traditional puzzle boxes with their distinctive patterned appearance.  Because of the tremendous skill required and unique technical nature of this craft, “Hakone-Yosegi-Zaiku” is designated as a national traditional handicraft in Japan. Very few master craftsmen are still creating these boxes today.

New Secret Box III (NS-3) - the colored wood is all natural, not dyed

In an effort to breath new life in to this traditional art form, a group of modern wood artisans living in the Hakone region formed a working group in 1999 and named themselves the “Karakuri Creation Group”.  Karakuri means “trick”, and their mission was to revitalize the old art of trick box making by developing new forms, mechanisms, tricks and techniques, while retaining the heritage and artistry of the region.  Over the past 15 years they have achieved impressive success and acclaim for their works, including hundreds of innovative and beautiful new designs, a school for wooden puzzle box making and a museum to celebrate the region’s history.  They hold yearly exhibitions for new works and have a world-wide following of enthusiasts.

Secrets revealed ... it's the Karakuri logo! Look at the incredibly complex mechanisms

The “New Secret Box” series is an example of the collaborative style of their group.  The master craftsmen in the group develop their own new works each year, but the group also strives to collaborate on mutual projects, often by taking a design from one member and converting it into a more affordable product which can be produced by other members on a larger scale, keeping in mind these all remain hand-made works of art.  The New Secret Box series was originally designed by Akio Kamei, one of the founders of the group and generally considered to be the “father” of the new karakuri puzzle box style.  His original designs are highly prized for their creativity and craftsmanship.  Unlike traditional Japanese puzzle boxes, which usually have 3-4 movable side panels, all 6 sides of the New Secret Box can move and must be coordinated in order to open the box.  Each of the boxes in this collaborative series has one, two or three colorful bands decorating each panel, and each requires a multiple of 6 moves to open.  This version, “III”, requires 18 moves to open the lid.

The Improved Japanese Cocktail (not very Japanese, but tasty!)

What else should be paired with this history of Japanese puzzle boxes other than the Japanese Cocktail?  The drink may be even older than the boxes, having been invented by the father of American cocktails himself, the legendary “Professor” Jerry Thomas.  The storybooks suggest that he created the drink in honor of the first Japanese delegation to the U.S. in 1860 at the Metropolitan Hotel in New York City.  There is absolutely nothing Japanese about this drink, by the way.  It’s a combination of brandy, almond syrup (orgeat), and bitters.  Apparently Jerry Thomas used “Bogart’s” bitters, an aromatic type bitter which has fallen to history, but in Hugo Ensslin classic cocktail book from 1917 the drink calls for Angostura bitters, which we have in plenty today.  Modern bartenders have breathed new life into this old classic as well, with suggestions for using Japanese whisky instead of brandy, and adding a hint of lemon peel or fresh lemon juice.  Try one of these incredibly simple and delicious recipes for the “Improved Japanese Cocktail” while puzzling over an improved Japanese puzzle box from the Karakuri Creation Group!  Kampai!


For Fredo Ceraso’s Improved Japanese Cocktail:

For Toby Cecchini’s Improved Japanese Cocktail:

For more on the Karakuri Creation Group:


  1. Now there's a box I could go for! But I must try and be strong!!

    Your writing style is beautiful - a pleasure to read!


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