In the past we have written about our favorite tea sets. Today we dive into the world of the Matcha whisk chasen.
Why Whisk Matcha?
Whisking matcha reduces bitterness and brings out the sweetness in the tea. It also adds a frothy texture to the tea which is more fun! It gives the tea a “luxuriousness”, similar to that created by the “crema” layer on the top of a well made black coffee. There are also obvious parallels with cafe latte or cafe ole froth.
How to Whisk Matcha?
Use a Japanese whisk called a Chasen 茶筅, “cha”茶, of course, meaning tea.
Before you start, do a “Chasen Toushi”茶筅通し, which means to wet the chasen in warm water in preparation. Giving it a few swishes for a few seconds in the water from the pot is enough.
Mix fast in an up-and-down, “M” shaped motion. When bubbles have formed Japanese people say to change the mixing shape from that of a letter “M” to the Japanese letter “の”, which is a more circular motion, and raise the whisk higher as you do it. When you’re done, pull the whisk out from the centre of the tea in a perpendicular motion, so that the surface of the tea looks nice and you don’t make a mess!
What to look for when buying a chasen bamboo whisk?
Traditionally, chasen are made from bamboo. These range from cheap to as much as you want to pay really. Serious tea masters will have a quiver of chasen for different occasions, such as chasen made of “blue bamboo” for the first tea ceremony of the new year.
bamboo takes a lot of care and will wear out over time, so you will need to buy new ones every now and then if you use them regularly. It helps to use a “Chasen Tate” or whisk-stand to put the chasen on when you’re not using it to help it keep its shape.
More recently, there are chasen made of metal or resin that can stand more extended everyday use. These may be more practical for people that want them purely for utilitarian purposes, but are considered less “refined”.
As with all traditional arts in Japan, there are different “schools” or “houses”, called ryuha in Japanese, of tea. The different schools tend to prefer certain types of chasen made from different types of bamboo. The three big “sen” (thousand) schools and their choice of chasen are:
House of Omote – Susudake bamboo
House of Urasen – Hachiku bamboo or white bamboo
Musyakojisenke – Shichiku bamboo or black bamboo
How many teeth for your matcha tea whisk?
For beginner tea makers, it is usually recommended that people use a chasen with about 90-100 teeth (called 穂 “ho” in Japanese). More advanced people may use a whisk with around 120 ho. This is because more advanced tea masters often use thicker teas which need the chasen with more teeth, but which also require a certain knack to be able to use. Often, choices by different tea houses come down to a preference that may have been made by a venerable teacher far in the past that has become a learn-by-rote rule over time. The making of tea is a deep, deep rabbit whole that you can go down if you want to.
How to make matcha tea without whisk?
Really, making tea can be as simple or complex as you want it to be. Making matcha can be as easy as slapping some powder in a bowl and giving it a quick mix up with a spoon. At the heart of the Japanese fastidious approach to tea making is the zen influenced concept of appreciating the little details of everyday life. How you stir up a cup of tea can be as significant an act as anything else. But it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The point here is not to obsess over the details. But do appreciate the little things.Often, choices by different tea houses come down to a preference that may have been made by a venerable teacher far in the past that has become a learn-by-rote rule over time. The making of tea is a deep, deep rabbit whole that you can go down if you want to.
A translation into English of the opening theme song from Midnight Diner Tokyo Stories (Shinya Shokudo) soundtrack, Omoide, by Tsunekichi Suzuki. I give a background on the songwriter, translate the lyrics, present the song in Japanese and English, and give a commentary on the translation.
But first thing’s first…
If you are a fan of Japanese culture, you are going to want to get yourself a Japanese tea set of one kind or another. If you are really into it, you’ll probably want several. Now tea is a big rabbit hole you can go down. If you do want to go deep, I would recommend starting with Okakura Kukuzo’s 1906 classic book The Book Of Tea, which, to give you a taste starts out:
“Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence”
A hundred years later, it’s still true that tea can get a little culty. A little nerdy. Or a little “let’s make sure we don’t heat our tea water more than 46.3 degrees, and that we spin the cup three and a half cycles per serve and make sure we have scientifically matched the tea circumference to the vessel consistency”. But it doesn’t have to be that complicated. Sure, if you want to make your tea using a thermometer and a set square, then knock yourself out. But fundamentally all we’re doing here is mixing a few leaves with some hot water, so let’s not overly complicate things.
In this article, we are going to simplify things so you can find yourself your perfect Japanese tea set, without the hoo-ha. We’ll cover the basics you need to know before you shell out for a pot and some cups.
Difference Between Teapots and Kettles
Now before we go any further we do need to get one fundamental thing straight. A kettle is something you use to boil water, and a teapot is something you use to mix tea and hot water. Simple enough right? In principle yes, but be aware that sometimes kettles and teapots can look very alike. In Japanese tea sets, this is especially true of metallic kettles and pots, which can be easy to confuse. Don’t get yourself into hot water 😉
With that sorted out, let’s take a look at the different types of Japanese tea sets out there.
Image: Batholith [Public domain]
Image: learza from Toorak, Melbourne [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]
Types of Japanese Tea Set
For the purposes of getting yourself kitted out with tea making stuff, there’s basically two types of Japanese Tea – powdered and leaf-brewed tea.
These are both made from the same thing – tea leaves, our old friend Camellia sinensis.
Powdered Japanese Tea Sets
The most famous powdered tea is the ubiquitous and mighty Matcha, which you may know from such roles as the matcha-flavoured milkshake or the matcha flavoured ice cream. Preparing powdered tea can be both the easiest (think instant powdered coffee) or the most difficult of teas to make (think a Japanese Tea Ceremony replete with a bevvy of utensils), depending on how serious you’re going to get. We’ve done a post about Chasen Whisks here, but the truth be told, you can get by with any old cup and a spoon to mix.
But if you want to really look the part, and chase the dragon of that fine cha taste, you would be looking at a set of four objects; a cup (chawan 茶碗), a spoon (Chashaku 茶杓), a whisk (Chasen 茶筅) and a tea container (Natsume 棗).
The first thing you need to choose for brewing leaf tea is what material you want to boil, pour and drink your tea with – Earthenware, Porcelain, Metal or Glass. See info below.
Once you’ve got that sorted, you just need to decide on a pot shape and where you want the handle. Too easy.
Shape-wise, you find pots with handles on the side, back and top of a tea-pot. It doesn’t really matter which you go with. The ones on the side are good because you can use one finger to hold the lid on while you pour. But if you’re left-handed, and you buy a side-handled pot made for a right-hander, then you better get ready to hone your backhanded pouring technique. The pots with handles across the top are usually the bigger ones or Dobin 土瓶, which are good for making a large amount of tea for lots of people.
learza from Toorak, Melbourne [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]
Image: 森正洋デザイン研究所 (Mori Masahiro Design Studio, LLC.) [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]
There are also pots that have no handles, called Hohin. You need to make sure the water is not too hot when you use one of these pots (which is really one of the central tenets of making Japanese tea anyway). Take a look at this video to see someone making tea in a handleless pot.
There are three main materials and each one has its own advantages and drawbacks:
Pots and cups made out of clay and ceramics are, in our opinion, the most fun option. Teaware made in these materials actually interact with the tea they hold to influence the flavour. They have the ability to absorb tastes and add flavours of their own. Which could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on what you like. We reckon it’s a good thing.
Ultimately, clay and ceramics turn making tea into more of an art than a science.
Purists will say that you should have a clay teapot for each specific type of tea you want to brew. Teapots will take on the taste of the tea that is brewed in them most often. So if you spend six months only brewing sencha in a pot, and then brew genmaicha, the genmaicha is still going to have a note of the sencha in there. Once again, could be a good thing, could be a bad thing. Either way, it’s food for thought.
If you are after something that will give a more “pure” or “clinical” representation of exactly what the tea leaves taste like without outside influence, Porcelain is a good option. Porcelain production has a long history in Japan, having been introduced from China via Korea in the late 1500s. It took the Chinese hundreds of years to perfect Porcelain, and the means of production was often kept a secret. Porcelain still keeps its air of refinement, and associations with China, so much so that we still use the word “China” in English to mean Porcelain. So if you are after something more instantly recognisable as distinctly “Japanese”, it may be better to go with earthenware.
There is something about the beautiful cast iron Japanese tetsubin 鉄瓶 kettles and kyusu 急須teapots. They have a certain ye-old-worldly charm. They are also popular because they can add the element of iron to water.
Just don’t confuse the kettles with the teapots – from the outside they look almost the same. You can tell the teapots by the fact they have an in built strainer in them
This is not so much a traditional one, but glass is worth a mention as it can be fun to be able to see the actual tea leaves brewing in the pot. It’s also a neutral material that won’t influence the taste of your tea. Have you ever heard anyone say “Er, yuk, this tea tastes like glass”?
If, like us, you are into the rich, earthy looking teacups and pots, you’ll find that it is hard to source the good stuff as a set with, say, 4 cups and a teapot. More often cups are sold as one-off items. Each one is its own little art piece. We are huge fans of pottery from the Bizen kilns of Japan. Buying several of these to put together your own “set” may be a little more expensive than some of the sets below, but is a worthwhile investment. There is something psychologically pleasing for guests, also, when everyone has their own special, but equally beautiful cup!
Wonderful rich, earthy texture
From one of the famous kilning regions of Japan
Each item is unique
Good size, not too small or big
As with almost all Japanese cups, there is no handle. So if you make the tea too hot, you’ll feel it!
There is a famous saying in Japan, “Raku first, Hagi second and Karatsu third”, in reference to the types of tea-wares that are used in tea ceremonies. Hagi is known for its use of understated, subdued colors and for it’s distinctive glaze. Number two ain’t bad.
From one of the famous kilning regions of Japan – Hagi
Tokoname is another of the iconic kilning regions of Japan, known for it’s striking red clay coloring. The “Tokyo Matcha Selection” headline is confusing, as the pot is designed with an in-built strainer for making loose leaf tea.
Beautiful earthy red
From one of the famous kilning regions of Japan – Tokoname
Somewhat festive looking set featuring a Kyo Tokusa 京十草 design. Kyo means Kyoto and the Tokusa means 10-grasses. It is said that gold and metal become more lustrous when polished with 10 grasses. Partly because of this reason, the stripey motif in Japanese design is considered auspicious
Genuine Arita-produced porcelain
Kyo Tokusa 京十草 design
Red and white stripes associated with festive times in Japan
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