Baba Ali Research (Book Secrets): Himitsu-Bako

Notes from my time writing “Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn” and fun tidbits.

Puzzles, puzzles, and more puzzles.

Baba Ali receives a puzzle box from a mysterious mechanical falcon. I’ve read about puzzle boxes and secret boxes and this sounded like something great to include. However, the only one I’ve seen was “Lemarchand’s Box” from the Hellraiser movies. Yeah, not going to use that as a reference (though I will say it very clearly used the puzzle box and it’s solution to evoke some sort of magic).Himitsu-Bako 6 Sun

So I’m now exploring Japanese puzzle boxes, or Himitsu-Bako. Himitsu-Bako are designed keep important documents or secrets safe inside, and no one can open them unless they know the correct moves, in the correct order. There are a lot of different kinds I’m seeing online and they have a variety of difficulties ranging from 4 to 66 moves in the more traditional forms to ones that take over a hundred moves. Yikes!


The first Japanese Secret Puzzle Boxes were designed over 100 years ago in the late Edo period by Jinbei Ishikawa (1790-1850). Ishikawa was living at Hatajuku in the Kakone-cho in the Hakone-Odawara region of Japan. The Hakone Mountains are noted for their richness and great variety of trees. This abundance of high quality wood in the region and the expertise of three generations of master craftsmen have achieved and art form that is revered for it’s detail and ingenuity.

Those early “secret boxes” were small and flat and didn’t look quite the way later ones did. It was after 1870, that we see the development of a puzzle box that looks more like a box, and with the integration of Yosegi-Zaiku (the wood-based designs and patterns), create the first Himitsu-Bako as we know it today.

Although the box Ali receives is more traditional in shape (and slightly larger), this video shows someone actually opening a box and it really gives you a picture of how difficult it can be. And of course, the one in our book has magical responses to each movement.

The fact that Ali’s family had access to Himitsu-Bako from the Hakone region of Japan in the 1800s says much about how well-travelled his father and grandfather were and how truly impressive their trading. Another interesting point is how our use of Himitsu-Bako gives some hints as to what the world is like.

We have an England caught in an Industrial Revolution (a steam one), where folklore and magic is dismissed in the name of science. We built a Middle-East where magic is a preferred and powerful tool, though mechanical things aren’t unheard of. I would argue that has happened in part because the environmental conditions aren’t exactly friendly to mechanical devices. That is true even to this day. And through the introduction of Baba Ali’s Himitsu-Bako from the Far East and its rare combination of magic and mechanics, that tells us a little bit about what that part of the world’s culture will look like.

Wow, they are so beautiful, I can’t help but want one.  Anyone looking for a Christmas present for me