Shehzad Lokhandwalla

Wood Mosaic and the Magic Box

A wooden box that needs a set of combinations to unlock it

Shehzad Lokhandwalla
Shehzad Lokhandwalla   - 3 min read

Fancy a box to hide secrets? These boxes are impossible to open unless you know a combination of moves. Unlike keys & locks, and passwords, it takes much more to open this box.

At first I thought that this seemed pretty easy and I would just need to move a few pieces here and there, but it was when I tried the 21 combination box that I gave up. You need to remember which pieces to move, and the most difficult part is to know what is the correct sequence.

Mysteriousness is not the only highlight of these boxes, they are beautiful from the outside. Wood mosaics have been popular in Japan for over 200 years, since the Edo period. The tradition of making these beautiful boxes, or other wooden structures began in the village of Hatajuku in Hakone.

The mosaics inlaid in these boxes symbolize warmness, and can be of 60 different types. It takes a lot of effort and craftsmanship to make these thin sheets of design work. Over 9 different types of tree are used for the production of the mosaic. Red is obtained from Padouk and Rengas, while the grey is obtained from Japanese umbrella trees. When the different colors are put together, the result is sensational.

Magic box is a touristic name given to a variety of mosaic boxes that are built to hide something, and involves a series of movements to open it. These boxes are rather expensive, and very popular among tourists. They start at 2,500 yen for the 4 movement one, and can go up to 15,000 yen for a decent sized 21 combination box.

What you actually pay for is the handicraft and the mosaic work. Making the mosaic isn't easy in the first place. I was told that different wood types are used as different colors, and no artificial paints are used. These pieces of wood are then sliced into really thin sheets or 'zuku', after which they are put together to make different mosaic designs. The mosaic designs are then used to decorate the box.

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I bought my box from the station mall at Odawara. Well, it is definitely something that tourists do, but I had no regrets after purchasing the box. I quickly went back to my hotel and figured out how to open it. With the box, you get an instruction sheet that tells you how to open it. After 9 attempts, 20 minutes, and a lot of frustration, I was finally able to open it.

To someone who doesn't know anything about this box, it is simply a piece of solid wood, and it is impossible for him/her to figure out anything beyond 1-2 sets of movement. And that's why it's magic, as only the owner knows how this box opens.

Hakone and Odawara are extremely popular for these boxes and the magnificent mosaic woodwork that comes along with them. If there is one souvenir I would invest in as a tourist, these boxes would be it!

Shehzad Lokhandwalla

Shehzad Lokhandwalla @shehzad.lokhandwalla

I'm a student at the University of California, Davis and I love traveling and photography. I'm currently interning with JapanTourist as a photojournalist, and immersing myself into Japanese culture. Two random facts about me: I am left handed/ambidextrous and have visited more than 30 countri...