What is a Japanese Chasen?
A chasen is a Japanese bamboo whisk used as an essential tool in the Japanese Tea Ceremony known as “Sado.” Sado, meaning the “Way of Tea,” involves the ceremonial tradition of preparing and then presenting Matcha.
If you have ever made matcha or observed it being made, you are probably familiar with the tools used in its preparation. The most important tools for making matcha is the chasen which is used to mix with consistency the matcha powder and hot water.
In this article we will be talking about the traditional bamboo chasen, how it is created, used, and maintained in the proper tradition of matcha making.
The History of the Chasen
The first Japanese chasen was made in the small village of Yuwa Takayama roughly 600 years ago during the Muromachi period. The tea ceremony known as the Chanoyu was originally reserved for Japan’s most elite, but it was Mr. Murata Juko who aimed to bring the beauty of the ceremony to the common people as a way of mindfulness and meditation. Therefore, he created Wabicha translated, “The Simple Tea Ceremony.”
In order to simplify the tea ceremony, Murata Juko commissioned his friend Takayama Minbunojo Nyudo Sosetsu to construct a tool befitting the spirit of wabicha that could be used to stir the matcha. After this tool was presented to the Emperor, who was pleased with its construction, it was given the name “Takaho,” which over time became famous in Japan as the Takayama chasen.
This became the catalyst for the art of the tea ceremony and the art of constructing the Takayama chasen. Takayama district, Ikoma City, in the Nara Prefecture has produced the finest Japanese chasen artisans whose art form was and still is passed down through the lineage from father to son. Takayama is known to this day for producing 90% of all traditional Japanese chasens.
How the Chasen is Made
Traditional Japanese Chasens are handcrafted from a single piece of specially selected bamboo shoots. Once cut, the shoots are aged by the sun for as long as two to three years.
The bamboo is then carefully split into tines of various sizes, depending the on the use of the whisk. A sharp blade is used to split the bamboo and remove the inside flesh keeping only the skin. The bamboo is then shaped and threaded to maintain the shape of the whisk and keep the tine strings separated.
How to Choose a Chasen
There are two different ways of preparing matcha. Each method of preparation may require a chasen with more or less strings.
The first is koicha, which is a thicker, more syrupy preparation of matcha crafted from 30-year-old tea plants. It is the preferred method of preparation for most ceremonial tea schools. When preparing koicha, a chasen with less strings works better, somewhere between 16 and 48 strings.
The second is usucha which is the more well-known method, making a thinner and frothier tea for normal, everyday preparation. Usually a chasen with more strings is appropriate, somewhere between 68 and 120 strings. Due to the thinner nature of usucha, more strings works better to create an evenly mixed matcha with more frothy foam.
If you are looking for a chasen that can do the job for both koicha and usucha then a whisk with 64 strings will generally work best.
How to Maintain your Chasen
Due to its delicate nature, you would think that the chasen would be super difficult to maintain. Actually, its quite simple.
You can either rinse the chasen with hot water until clean or using your chawan (mixing bowl), you can whisk in hot water until clean. You never want to use harsh soaps or place your bamboo whisk in the dishwasher. This will destroy your chasen.
To avoid mold and mildew, it is equally important to properly dry your chasen, especially before storage.
The use of a kusenaoshi (chasen holder) is the best method for drying your chasen. It keeps the air flowing and the strings down, maintaining its shape and keeping it drier.
If you don’t have a kusenaoshi, make sure to store the chasen strings up. This will dry the chasen completely, but it may quickly lose its shape. By properly maintaining your chasen you can expect a few years of good use.