Saturday, January 30, 2016

Sentimental Geisha Secrets

This one's for you, Mom.  Like many of my fellow puzzle box collectors, I received my first Japanese box when I was a young boy.  My parents had traveled extensively throughout Asia and the Pacific islands, and our house was full of mementos from their journeys.  It was quite exotic and exciting for a budding adventurer.   I remember when I was around 9 or 10, while playing hide and seek, I fell into a box in storage and stabbed myself on a sharks toothed spear!  My mother had a particular love of Japanese culture.  She loved painted silk screens, jade statues, kimonos.  My puzzle box was one of the many Japanese items in our home.  She also loved to collect boxes adorned with beautiful details such as inlays of wood or mother of pearl.  I am thinking about her now on the 1 year anniversary of her death.  She would have loved many of the boxes in my collection, and in particular, one very special box, which reminds me of her, the “Geisha Secret”.

The Geisha Secret by Yoshio Okiyama

Japanese master Yoshio Okiyama, was a third generation secret-box maker who was taught by his father, Yoshitaro Okiyama, who in turn was taught by his father, Tatsunosuke Okiyama, one of the 3 original founders of this art form dating back to sometime after 1870. Yoshio Okiyama developed some of the most complex traditional Japanese puzzle boxes in existence, including the 66 and 78 moves boxes.  To challenge himself, he went on to create a box with 102 steps, followed by ones with 122 and 119 steps.  His 122 step box is credited with the most moves ever created in a traditional style box.
Masterful marquetry depicts this unusually beautiful geisha

It’s amazing to contemplate the fine craftsmanship that went into that design, while keeping the box relatively small.  It can be confusing for Westerners or Europeans to understand the sizing of Japanese puzzle boxes, which are still measured using Japan’s original system of measurement, the shakkanhō, despite the adoption of the metric system throughout modern Japan.  The ancient system has been retained in certain disciplines, including carpentry.  The shaku is the main unit of length, similar to the Western “foot”.  Much like the foot, which was originally based on the length of that body part, the shaku was the length from the thumb to the middle finger, and now equals approximately 12 inches (the same size as 1 foot, for my European friends).  Other units derived from there as fractions of 10’s, like the metric system.  Japanese puzzle boxes are traditionally measured in units of “sun”.  1 sun is 1/10th of a shaku, or approximately 3 cm (a little more than 1 inch).  The tiniest of boxes, known as “mame” (“bean”) are 1 sun in length.  Larger boxes hold more moves, such as the typical 7 sun box (21 cm, about 8 inches) with up to 54 steps.  Okiyama more than doubled the steps while keeping the box almost the same size, by shrinking the “steps” – literally step-like components hidden inside the box, which create the movement patterns.  The steps in the 122 move box are approximately 7 “rin” (1/100th sun) or about 1-2mm each.  He was truly a master of the art.

An unusual sequence of moves will open the box

He created his “Geisha Secret” box (“New Trick Inside”) near the end of his career, around the time he was helping to form and lead the new “Karakuri Creation Group” of modern Japanese puzzle box artisans with AkioKamei.  The Geisha box is not as complicated as some of his creations, with only 10 moves needed to open, but is notable for incorporating new and unexpected movements in the panels.  The box is also very beautiful, adorned with stunning inlays of an elegant geisha on the front and flower on the reverse.  He continued to innovate until the end, establishing his legacy with the new generation of puzzle box makers.  Yoshio Okiyama died in 2003 at the age of 79.

The Golden Geisha cocktail

In honor of this special puzzle box, and for my mother, I present the “Golden Geisha” cocktail.  She would have gotten a kick out of this blog as well, and I think she would have liked this drink.  Credit is due to Wesley Wolfe, a Chapel Hill, NC area mixologist whose “Red Geisha”, which was featured as Imbibe’s cocktail of the week a few years ago, helped inspire this version.  In the “Golden Geisha”, I use a golden rum as the base spirit, and add fresh lime juice muddled with ginger and pineapple.  To sweeten the drink I made a syrup using plum wine, which imparts a uniquely Japanese flavor element.  If anyone recognizes this as another variation on the classic daiquiri, all I can say is, I’ll drink to that.  Cheers to those who inspire us to marvel at the beauty in life, which is truly a puzzle with many steps, and so worth opening.  I miss you, Mom.

Plum wine syrup adds a uniquely delicious element

The Golden Geisha:
2 oz golden aged rum
 1 oz fresh squeezed lime juice
1-2 small cubes fresh ginger
1-2 large cubes fresh pineapple
½ oz plum wine syrup

Muddle the pineapple and ginger with the syrup in a shaker tin.  Add the lime juice and rum, shake over ice and strain into a favorite glass.  Garnish with pineapple wedge and lime wheel.

Plum wine syrup:
Heat ½ cup plum wine with ½ cup sugar in a saucepan to dissolve the sugar.  Simmer for 5 minutes, then cool and store up to 1 week.

For more about Yoshio Okiyama:

Cheers from this pair of sentimental geishas


  1. Nicely done. I had a similar experience growing up. Alas, the boxes disappeared when I went off to college. I've now more than made up for their loss.

  2. It's good that you remember her with your hobby - she would have been very proud of you, your family, your professional achievements and your hobby. Puzzle and drink in her memory! Thanks for your support during my difficult time!

    Take care.