Art of Play Visits Japan

We’re always searching for new products and inspiration so this year we decided to travel East and see what treasures we might discover in the land of the rising sun.

Tokyo International Toy Show

Upon landing in Tokyo, we headed to the 2017 International Toy Show. Unlike most industry trade shows, this exhibition was open to the public which made for a much more lively atmosphere. Thousands of Japanese children swarmed the hall as we perused the exhibits and exchanged business cards with vendors. Most of the products on display won’t hit U.S. shelves until later this year but a few select items may be available on the Art of Play site before then… We were particularly impressed with the new offerings from our friends at Hanayama and Tenyo.

Our Favorite Shop in Tokyo

After we mentioned our travel plans in a recent newsletter, a well-traveled customer suggested we visit a shop called Ma by So Shi Te in the Harajuku neighborhood of Tokyo. This little jewel box of a store turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip. The owner, Kafune-San, has curated an impeccable collection of beautiful home goods, clever accessories and traditional handcrafted puzzle boxes. His shelves were full of rare and beautiful “karakuri” or “trick boxes.” Some were puzzles we had never seen before. Lucky for us, Kafune-San spoke perfect english and had memorized the solutions to every box in the store. He told us that nearly all of the puzzles in his collection had been made in Hakone, a small mountain town that is considered by many to be the birthplace of Japanese woodworking.

Hakone

The train ride from Tokyo to Hakone is only about an hour but to reach the small villages nestled in the mountain tops, the most direct route is by rope way.

 Zipping through the trees we passed over shimmering lakes, verdant mountains and steaming geothermal chasms. On a clear day, Hakone offers one of the most breathtaking views of Mt. Fuji in all of Japan. Ancient hiking paths connect the little towns and traditional ryokan inns offer access to private onsen (natural hot springs).  When we return to Japan we will be sure to plan more time to explore the area as the wilderness was just as inspiring as the local crafts. In fact, the deep forests are one of the reasons why the region is so famous for its wood working. Every shop offered precious crafts and puzzles carved from locally sourced wood.

Puzzle Box Museum

Hidden in the back of a small nondescript shop, we discovered an entire museum dedicated to the local tradition of hand made puzzle boxes. We were excited to see all the rare items on display in the museum but getting in was not so easy…

Once inside, we were amazed at the world-class collection of puzzles. Small puzzle boxes, large puzzle boxes, old, new, intricate, simple and all made by local artisans from Hakone. There were robotic automated puzzles boxes, puzzle sculptures, even puzzle furniture.

We learned all about the tradition of Karakuri boxes and Yosegi wood working techniques in Hakone. Scholars have traced artifacts and historical reports all the way back to the early 1800’s. Today, the tradition of meticulous and ingenious Karakuri works is carried on by an organization of local craftsman called the Karakuri Creation Group. We hope to continue our ongoing collaboration with these talented artisans and add even more of their unique treasures to our online shop for your enjoyment.

 

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