A Brief Introduction to Chasen:
In traditional tea ceremony, there are many specialized utensils used in the preparation of matcha. Most of these are optional outside of a formal tea ceremony procedure – however, the one indispensable utensil that always ought to be used when making a bowl of tea is the chasen.
Chasen come in many combinations of shapes, sizes, styles, and bamboo types. They may be made from white, purple, smoked, and even green bamboo, and can range in size from a diminutive 5 centimeters, to nearly half a meter tall! Their tines can also vary in number, thickness, be straight or curved, and may be adorned with a crisp end curl, or taper off in a gentle arc. Chasen may also be threaded in various colours, the most common being black, though any colour is possible.
The desired combination of these variables can depend on something as formal as the functional and aesthetic requirements of a particular tea school, or something as simple as the personal preferences of an individual wishing to enjoy the look of his or her own collection of tea utensils.
How Chasen are Made
There is an incredible amount of craftsmanship that go into producing fine quality chasen, and while there are many inexpensively made chasen on the market today, there is no substitute for an authentic Takayama Chasen, handcrafted in the Takayama region of Ikoma City by multi-generational masters.
To create such a chasen, a craftsman will typically follow eight steps:
- Bamboo - Bamboo is cut and seasoned for 1 or 2 years before cutting to size. Three types of bamboo are commonly used: white bamboo, black bamboo, and smoke-stained bamboo. White bamboo has a white surface and is made by processing madake or mousou bamboo. Black bamboo is a type of madake bamboo, and since its stem color is a purplish brown, it is also called shichiku (purple bamboo). Smoke-stained bamboo has a unique texture and preparation method; bamboo used in the roof or ceiling of an old-style Japanese house, sometimes for over 100 or 200 years, will be naturally stained by smoke rising from the sunken fireplace.
- Hegi (Splitting the Bamboo) - This is the first process to make the whisk split head. Firstly, the bark of the tine section is peeled; the handle section is not. Then, the tine section is split with a knife; it is rather like cutting a cake, the bamboo is progressively halved to make the base tines. The number of splits varies depending on the bamboo thickness; a minimum of 12 and a maximum of 24. After splitting, the interior pulp is removed to thin the bamboo.
- Kowari (Fine Splitting) - The base tines are further split into thinner ones, and they are alternately divided into large and small segments. The number of final tines will be in accordance with the specifications of the final product. As an example, if 80 tines are to be created from 16 splits, each tine is split into 10, giving a total of 160 tines, which will be equally divided into 80 outside tines and 80 inside tines.
- Ajikezuri (Shaving the Tips) - The tine tips are shaped after first being soaked and softened in hot water; they are carefully shaved and thinned from the base, and this is an absolutely crucial stage because it will affect the flavor of the matcha tea.
The tip shape differs depending on the tea ceremony school. For example, the tips of tea whisks used by the Mushakouji Senke school are straight, while those used by the Urasenke school are curved like a fish hook.
- Mentori (Chamfering) - One by one, both edges of the outside tines are shaved. If the edges are left unshaved, tea is likely to stick to the tines and the bubbles will not smoothly disappear.
- Shita-ami and Uwa-ami (Binding) - The chamfered outside tines are bound with thread once (shita-ami) and then to securely fix the base, bound again (uwa-ami). Most tea whisks are tied with black threads, as stains do not stand out, but some schools including the Sekishu-ryu do use white threads; yellow is used for Buddhist memorial services; and generally red or red and white can be used for celebrations.
- Koshi-narabe (Adjustment) - Using a bamboo spatula, the inside tines and the base height and intervals between tines are carefully adjusted.
- Shiage (Finishing) - In the final stage, any uneven lengths and intervals between tines and the overall shape are corrected before packing.
Before using a chasen, it should be placed in water for a few minutes in order for the tines to soften. This helps prevent the tines from breaking and prolongs its life. Next, one should observe whether any tines are broken. If so, pinch and remove the broken piece to prevent it from breaking off in the tea. If the damage is more severe, consider replacing the chasen.
Rinse the chasen thoroughly with water as soon as possible after use to remove any tea residue. If tea has been left to dry on the chasen for too long, you may soak the tines in water before carefully massaging them with your fingers, a sponge, or even a toothbrush to remove more stubborn tea residue. After rinsing, it is recommended to place the chasen on a naoshi, (whisk holder), to keep the proper shape as well as to facilitate drying.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Japanese tea ceremony is the plethora of different utensils that are used, but as precious and revered as all these are, it is perhaps inarguable that when making a bowl of tea, the most essential of them all, for which there is no real substitute, is the chasen.