Metal Sculpture inspired by The Orb. "Welding Practice."
Matsuyama, in the Ehime Prefecture of Japan, is home to Katsuhiko Okamoto, one of the most innovative twisty puzzle designers in the world. A graduate of Okayama University, he holds a degree in mechanical engineering. Okamoto-san and his father own and operate a sheet metal fabrication shop. This shop is the envy of any craftsman. Okamoto-san owns a large collection of machines for cutting, drilling, shaping, and bending sheet metal and other materials. His shop is nestled in a scenic area between the Shikoku Mountains and the Seto Inland Sea. The Matsuyama airport is a 5 minute drive away. The building, typical of Japanese buildings, is sturdy enough to withstand earthquakes and typhoons.
On the day we meet, the strength of his building is of particular interest. Super-typhoon Dianmu, Chinese for "Mother of Lightning", is two days away. We can feel the winds from this storm already. The air is moist, warm, and clean.
Okamoto-san uses a fabrication technique that is unlike most other custom puzzle producers. He starts with a 2 cm thick slap of black ABS plastic. Using his machines, he cuts this material and shapes it into the complex structures required for a twisty puzzle. As any fabrication expert knows, one secret to consistent quality is precision-made jigs. He builds and uses a variety of jigs.
In most cases his puzzles start with the core of a production puzzle such as a Rubik's cube or a Meffert's skewb. Over the years, Okamoto-san's skill and the complexity of his puzzles have increased to the point that very little of the production puzzle remains. In some of his latest designs, almost the entire puzzle is composed of custom-made parts.
We have all have seen photos of his creations at puzzle3d.hp.infoseek.co.jp
. We covet these beautiful objects. There have been many requests for photos of the internal structures. These requests will go unfulfilled for the moment, as Okamoto-san hopes to commercialize his designs. I will only say that the internals are elegant in their simplicity and functionality.
In his shop, we sit together at a makeshift bench, with a laptop equipped with sophisticated language translation software. Okamoto-san rented this computer so that we can communicate. This Japanese keyboard looks just like a Western keyboard, but somehow, he coaxes it to print Kanji sentences. They are totally incomprehensible to me. One click, and the English translation magically appears.
Roll-up doors and windows are flung wide open. With Dianmu still far away, a gentle breeze puffs at puzzle drawings and notes. We quickly reach for something to serve as a paperweight. Here, I grab a puzzle. I gaze at the paperweight. It is a Master Skewb. I am awestruck by the beauty and feel of this object. My eye drifts to another puzzle close by. The Master Pyraminx. Carefully I lift it, afraid to turn it, afraid I might harm it in some way. Okamoto-san takes it from me, and unceremoniously twists it in several moves, lightning fast. There is nothing fragile about these puzzles. They are substantial and sturdy, like this building.
I asked him about his first experience with the Rubik's Cube. "I played with a Rubik's cube first in 1980. Although I was a high school student in those days, I found the solution method by myself. However, that solution method was not efficient, and it took a long time to solve. I can solve it only by that solution method even now." (Almost none of the contestants I talked to in Toronto at the 2003 Rubik's Cube Championships developed their own solutions unless they used a computer.) He developed an interest in modifying puzzles, he says, "When I saw an Octagon Cube for the first time on the Internet, I happened to think, I can make that myself! I was lucky that the 100 yen cube was put on the market in Japan." (The 100 yen shop is similar to dollar stores in the US and Canada.)
Handmade puzzles by Katsuhiko Okamoto.
The master in his shop.
Okamoto-san is a family man, with a wife and three sons. "I like play my acoustic guitar, and I like the Beatles, Star Trek (TNG), card magic, and mathematics. I respect Einstein, Feynman, Escher, and Erno Rubik."
When asked what inspires his ideas for new puzzles, Okamoto replies, "I cannot explain it well. An idea may flash suddenly, or it may develop after much soul-searching. In many cases, if one good idea appears, other related ideas will appear one after another. So always I have many ideas and I can't keep up with production."
Okamoto-san is an active participant in a Japanese internet puzzle brain-trust, composed of Hiroshi Ishino, Hiroaki Koyama, and Kazuhiro Watanabe. This team is a font of challenging ideas, and Okamoto-san converts these thoughts into physical reality.
Many of us at the Twisty Forum have mourned the short supply of puzzles like the Master Pyraminx, Lattice Cube, and Master Skewb. Unfortunately the jig he used to produce the Master Pyraminx wore out quickly, and he has not had time to build more jigs. Someone asked him, "Do you plan to produce more of Tony Fisher's designs like the Container Cube?" "No," he answers. "I have too many ideas of my own. There aren't enough hours in a day to produce all the puzzles I have created in my mind. From now on, I only produce my own designs."
As an avid twisty collector, I can only hope that somewhere there is a puzzle manufacturer who can find a way to mass-produce Okamoto's fabulous ideas, so that we can all experience the joy of twisting an Okamoto Original of our own.
- Carter Tarrer, June 2004