The combination of tea leaves and water creates the refreshing liquid we call tea. The magic, however doesn’t just happen on its own. Some utensils – or in other words – teaware, are necessary for that. Every country has different tea culture and uses different teaware for making and enjoying tea. In this section we will look at teaware used for Japanese teas as well as some key regions where it is produced.
Teaware for Matcha
Matcha is the oldest kind of tea in Japan. As you may know its predecessor – tea crushed form tealeaves pressed in bricks, was first brought from China. Unsurprisingly, teaware from China was brought along with it. Chinese teaware was used in Japanese tea preparation for a long time until about 15th-16th century when Japan started to develop its own tea utensils.
One of the most important utensils in Matcha making is Matcha bowl or matchawan. Because it is used for both whisking and drinking Matcha, it normally has a wide body, unusual for a western eye. It can differ in shape and visual appearance depending on when and what kind of Matcha will be made in it. Matcha bowls used to make Matcha in winter will normally be taller and have higher edges to keep the warmth of the liquid. Matcha bowls in summer season, on the other hand, will be shorter in height and have wider edges to allow Matcha to cool down faster.
The style of the bowl also tends to differ depending if it is used for more formal service – koicha, or less formal service – usucha. Matcha bowl for usucha will normally be more cheerful and have brighter decorations. Kyoyaki is a common pottery style for usucha bowl. Koicha bowls are normally more muted and come in more natural darker colours. Common styles of pottery for koicha are Rakuyaki, Hagiyaki and others.
Chasen, or a bamboo whisk, is another key utensil in Matcha making. The whisking of Matcha with chasen helps to create the iconic thick green foam. The colour of bamboo might differ depending on which tea ceremony school it is intended for, but naturally light bamboo is the most common. In Japan even today chasen are carved by hand. The making of chasen takes a long time. From cutting and drying bamboo to carving the body of the chasen can take several months. To make a chasen the top part of a bamboo piece is usually split into 80 or 100 fine tines. Because of that chasen is rather fragile and needs to be used with care.
Chashaku is a bamboo scoop traditionally used for measuring Matcha powder into the bowl. Normally chashaku is also made of bamboo that is carved and bent to create the shape of a scoop.
Usuki is a tea caddy in which Matcha is placed for the tea ceremony (especially usucha service). Commonly it is made from lacquerware and often has some beautiful decorations painted on it.
Chaire is another kind of tea caddy usually used for a more formal serving of Matcha – koicha. It is made from clay and will usually be kept in a beautiful silk bag – shifuku. A controversial thing about chaire is that its lid traditionally used to be made from ivory and coated with gold at the bottom. Nowadays lids are also made from plastic.
Tetsubin, or an iron kettle, is well-known and often used around the world. In Japan it is normally used to boil water for tea (not to brew tea in it). Made from iron, tetsubin is said to enhance the qualities of tea as it naturally releases some iron into the boiling water.
Chagama is another kind of kettle used in making Matcha. It is bigger than tetsubin and usually is immobile during a tea service. Depending on the season it can either be placed on top of a tatami mat (in summer season) or inside a hearth cut into a tatami mat (in winter). Like tetsubin it is also made from iron, hence, it also releases some iron into the water and enhances the flavor of tea.
Teaware for Sencha
Nowadays Sencha is the most common tea in Japan. Until about three hundred years ago, when Nagatani Souen invented Sencha production method in 1738, that wasn’t the case. Tea utensils for Sencha therefore are much more recent in history than tea utensils for Matcha.
One of the most common utensils to make Sencha is kyusu. It is traditionally made out of clay. Kyusu is a bit smaller than western teapots, but a bit bigger than Chinese teapots. It is common to find kyusus in the range of 150ml-450ml. Unusual to the West is also that the handle is at ninety degree angle to the spout. It makes much more ergonomic motion when pouring, as the tea starts pouring out of kyusu with just a slight tilt of the wrist. Because of the position of the handle, however, kyusu is normally intended to be held by a specific hand. In Japan kyusu for right-handed people are much more common. Kyusu for left-handed people are really rare.
Houhin is another kind of Japanese teapot. It is also made of clay. It does have a filter and a spout. Unlike kyusu, however, it does not have a handle at all. To use it you have to hold the body with your own hand. Because of that it is normally intended for higher grade teas like Gyokuro or Kabuse Sencha.
Among the Japanese teapots, shiboridashi is the simplest of all, and it considered to be a predecessor of other current day Japanese teapots. It is made from clay, but neither has a handle nor a filter. A few lines are carved in the body close to the spout, that act as a filter by helping to let the tea liquid out and to keep the tea leaves inside the teapot. Shiboridashi is usually really small in size (100ml-200ml) and it is used for higher grade teas like Gyokuro or Kabuse Sencha.
In Japan it is common to cool the water down before brewing tea and a water cooler here is called yuzamashi. It is made from clay. Like Kyusu it will normally have a handle at ninety degrees to the spout. Some handle-less yuzamashi, that are often paired with a houhin or shiboridashi, do also exist. Yuzamashi tends to be used for both cooling down the water as well as for mixing several brews of the same tea before serving the tea.
When tea is ready it is normally poured in a yunomi, or a teacup. Yunomi is also most commonly made from clay. Traditionally they are sold either in a pair (bigger cup for a male tea drinker and smaller cup for a female drinker) or a set of five. Like Japanese teapots, size-wise Japanese teacups also tend to be in-between western and Chinese teacups. It is common to find yunomi in the range of 50ml-150ml, with smaller teacups used for higher grade teas and bigger teacups used for more casual teas.
Teaware Production Regions and Styles
Like tea production varies region to region, teaware production does too. Some regions specialize in particular materials like porcelain or bamboo. And some have the history of several centuries.
Pottery made from clay can be divided into three kinds depending on its softness: earthenware – the softest kind, stoneware – medium kind, and porcelain – the hardest kind. In terms of earthenware the most famous style is Rakuyaki in Kyoto, known for its pitch-black bowls. The story has it that originally Rakuyaki producers were making roof tiles, until tea ceremony godfather – Sen no Rikyu, tasked one of the craftsmen to make a Matcha bowl. The Rakuyaki history began then and today it is one of the most iconic pottery styles for Matcha utensils.
Stoneware is the most common kind of pottery in Japan and there are several different pottery styles in which Japanese teaware is produced to this day. In terms of Sencha utensils such as Kyusu, the most noteworthy are Takonameyaki and Bankoyaki. Tokonameyaki is among the six oldest kilns in Japan and has about 800 years of pottery production history. Tokonameyaki from Tokoname region in Aichi prefecture is known for its red iron-rich clay. Its teaware is mostly unglazed in red or black colours. Bankoyaki from Yokkaichi in Aichi prefecture, on the other hand, is a much more recent pottery style dating back to the 18th century. Bankoyaki pottery is usually fired in reduction furnace, that limits the amount of oxygen when firing and prevents the elements in clay from oxidizing. The result of this is dark purple colour of the fire teaware.
In terms of Matcha utensils, pottery styles are much more varied. Among the oldest traditional styles there is Bizenyaki in Imbe, Okayama prefecture, Shigarakiyaki in Shigaraki, Shiga prefecture. Both are among the six oldest kilns in Japan counting about 800 years of history. Bizenyaki and Shigarakiyaki are known for their unglazed pottery and natural brown colours. Common teaware items are Matcha bowls and flower vases.
Among the newer pottery styles for Matcha utensils are Kyoyaki and Asahiyaki. Both are found in Kyoto prefecture. Kyoyaki is known for its light glazes and gorgeous colorful decorations. Asahiyaki is known for its pink spotted clay. Common to both of these styles are Matcha bowls.
Aritayaki is the most famous porcelain style of Japan. It is based in Arita, Saga prefecture. It is said to have started in 16th century, when Korean potters were brought to Japan. They discovered that Arita was rich in clay suitable for porcelain and started the tradition there. Today Aritayaki is known for white porcelain with gorgeous colorful decorations.
Unlike pottery that is spread out through different regions of Japan, the production of bamboo tea utensils is much more concentrated. Over 90% of bamboo tea utensils are made in Takayama, Nara. Takayama is mostly known for chasen, but other bamboo utensils like chashaku or water scoop – hishaku, are also made here.
Among the metal tea utensils there is tetsubin and chagama made of iron. The metalwork teaware history starts about 400 years ago and follows the developments of tea ceremony. Traditional metal tea utensils were produced in Kyoto and even today they are still made here.
In Japan some lacquerware is also used for tea. The most notable item is usuki used for holding Matcha during a tea ceremony. Usually it is made from wood or bamboo with about three layers of lacquer. First layers of lacquer are normally red or black in colour, and the final layer is usually transparent.
Over the last few centuries Japan has developed a quite distinct tea culture, and some special often unique teaware is used for it. The traditions have developed over several hundred years and luckily continue to the present day. There is also some variation between different regions, as some of them specialize in specific materials or styles. The world of Japanese teaware is full of wonderful discoveries, and while some items take a few tries to get used to, once you do, you don’t want to let them go.