Normally when I go to Japan, I go to Tokyo and Kyoto. But this year, when I visited in June, I went to quite a few small towns and villages around the country, helped by friends to visit lots of tea farmers, potters, chasen makers and artisans, in Kyushu island, Nara, Aichi and Tokyo. It was a wonderful trip that allowed me to focus and learn all about how beautiful things are made.
In Nara I was lucky enough to visit the studio of Tanimura Tango, which was a fascinating experience and where I was able to see his wonderful creations. Tanimura Tango is the 20th in line of a famous chasen-making family, going back around 300 years.
The subject of chasen (bamboo-whisks) is a very interesting one, as it relates directly to the quality of making fine tea. I do sometimes get enquiries about the price of chasen, but not very many questions about how they are made, or why they can be of different shapes. Some people have said that good chasen seem to be expensive, and that they prefer to look for cheaper versions, as they might get damaged anyway.
What is really important to understand is that there are very different kinds of chasen. The cheaper ones, which are made in China, are made in a completely different way to the traditional Japanese chasen. Not only do they not last as long and get more easily damaged, but their materials have a different effect on the tea itself.
Firstly, before making chasen, Japanese makers harvest the bamboo and wait for 2 to 3 years for the bamboo to dry completely. As the bamboo goes through snowy winter days and hot sunny days, it fades and dries slowly, so that the colour of the bamboo itself is not green but a naturally faded beige. Then they will start making the chasen, splitting the bamboo plants one by one. The shape of the chasen is pointed at the top, following the natural shape of gathered split bamboo leaves.
In comparison, with the Chinese method, they do not wait, so when they harvest the bamboo they have to bleach the bamboo to change their colour, so that they look like the Japanese ones. Then when they come to making the chasen, the bamboo is still fresh, and not completely dried. As part of this speeding-up process, they spray a pesticide to make sure that the bamboo is not damaged by insects, and then place dry beads in the packaging alongside the chasen to dry themselves in the plastic box. All so that they can make the manufacturing process quicker and cheaper.
I assume that the pesticides are cleared for health reasons, however I cannot imagine that we are tasting pesticide spray. We droin match tea to get health benefit don’t we? I do not use these chasen myself or recommend them to my customers.
Another comparison is that the chasen have a different shape. These ‘Sen’ chasen – which are widely sold in the UK – are rounded at the top, with the tines artificially curled at the end. Where they have been curled at the top, these tines are also thinner, and so more easily damaged. So those people who buy Chinese ‘Sen’ chasen may end up having to buy many of them.
In comparison, the Japanese ‘Shin’ chasen has a more straight top. The tines have not been intentionally curled and are not thinner, and the chasen is much more durable and has a much longer life. It can clearly be seen that its shape is very different from the cheaper one. Also the Japanese ‘Shin’ chasen has a more slender handle, as opposed to the Chinese-made ‘Sen’ chasen, which has a fat handle.
It was interesting going to Tanimura Tango’s studio, seeing the different chasen he is making. I have now decided to launch two of his very best grade chasen to the UK market. One is the chasen he was producing for Urasenke, Mushakoji senke’s great Tea Master. The Urasenke school likes the lighter colour bamboo. The second chasen is the one Tanimura Tango produced for the Omotesenke school (my school), which likes a darker bamboo. You will see from the image a black thread collar on the chasen – this we use only for formal tea parties. For other occasions we can enjoy colour threads at home!
Looking after your chasen is obviously important, and here are some of my recommendations:
Before using your chasen:
I recommend putting your chasen in cold or lukewarm water for at least 5 minutes before using it every time. This means that the tines can absorb enough water, and become flexible and strong enough to mix the water and matcha powder. Also, the tines can absorb enough water, so they don’t absorb too much matcha powder.
How to clean your chasen:
Please do not use washing up liquid every time, as bamboo is a natural material. Rinse your chasen with hot water and shake it, and use a chasen stand to keep its shape nicely.
I like to use a good quality of chasen for long time, rather than purchasing a cheap one often! It is a different feeling using an elegant chasen, and I believe that the taste changes depending on the whisk too.
Perhaps, I am slightly obsessed with matcha, and I drink 4 to 5 cups of matcha every day. Sometimes I can make perfectly delicious one, sometimes it is slightly too hot or too cold. I am learning every time!
I am sure that two things. When I am happy and relaxed, I can make delicious cup of matcha tea, and a perfect matcha tea gives me happiness and great satisfaction.