To enjoy matcha the way Sen no Rikyu made it almost 500 years ago, you would need to whisk it with a bamboo chasen (whisk), intricately carved by hand from one piece of aged bamboo.
Today China holds the lion’s share of mainstream chasen being cranked out, thousands at a time by the three main factories. Sadly, selling cheap has given China an edge on the market but they have missed the mark completely when it comes to the magic of this true artisan tool and its myriad applications based on the method of whisking employed by the various tea ceremony schools.
Thanks to Wanobi Beautiful Japan’s founder, Yuko Sangu, I had the privilege of meeting one of the last remaining artisans of the bamboo chasen, Master Tango Tanimura. After being dazzled by his craft, there’s no wonder he has a year waiting list! In fact, Tanimura san makes most of the whisks for all the tea ceremony teachers in Japan. He knows exactly how each school uses the chasen, and therefore how to craft the chasen to achieve the desired matcha liquor. Unless a craftsman has this intimate knowledge, it is impossible to know how to proceed. This is why chasen made overseas are not precise and can never be genuine.
Born in 1964 in Takayama in Nara Prefecture, Master Tanimura is the 20th generation of the Tanimura family, who have been making chasen for almost 500 years in the very same town. Takayama has been the center of chasen manufacturing in Japan for more than five centuries.
The Tanimura family is one of three remaining of the 13 chasen-making families that were granted surnames by the Tokugawa government during the Edo Period (1603-1867). So secretive was the art form back then that the families shut their curtains and crafted by candlelight so no one could steal their technique. Tango Tanimura has mastered the family secret production technique passed down from father to son just as his ancestors did.
What is a Chasen?
So let’s explore this secret technique by first looking at what a chasen does…
The sole purpose of a chasen is to mix the powdered green tea called matcha with hot water so the particles, which are as tiny as the smoke of a cigarette, are completely suspended in the water. Depending on which tea ceremony school you may follow, the chasen and student can produce a luxurious foamy cap with delicate white streaks running through it, that hides the deep emerald liquor below. As you sip the foam, you instantly unveil the hidden gem waiting for your admiration.
Of course the quality of matcha is an important element when it comes to producing an enticing, frothy bowl but the whisk is just as important so please never use a blender or one of those metal whizzers!
The key to this dainty yet resilient tool is in the meticulously selected Japanese bamboo from which it is crafted: the secret is to make maximum use of the most pliable Japanese bamboo and skillfully hand carve it from a single piece so that it won’t easily warp or break.
A chasen from Takayama is the real deal, boasting a delicate finish and suppleness in its bamboo fibers which is completely unrivaled anywhere in the world. In fact, the peerless functional aesthetic of the chasen is a reflection of the Japanese soul, and frankly, using one is the only way to get that authentic Japanese matcha experience.
Let’s Look at the Bamboo…
There are approximately 100 different types and forms of chasen used by various schools of tea. Hachiku (Henon bamboo) produces a smooth and frothy whipped green tea, while shichiku (purple) and kurochiku (black) make a green tea with an island of foam, while susudake (soot-stained bamboo) creates a foamless green tea.
Fine-grained hachiku (Henon bamboo) with its straight fibers is the choice of Urasenke tea school, and this bamboo is best used after aging for three years. First, the hachiku bamboo is simmered to remove dirt and oil – missing this step will result in discoloration of the wood. Then in mid-winter, when Takayama is blasted by icy winds, the bamboo is placed like a tepee in the rice fields to sun-dry. During the month or so of drying, the green bamboo gradually turns blond, just like a tatami mat if you have ever had new ones put into your house! Once the bamboo is dried, it goes into storage for another year or two where it takes on a distinctive amber tone.
One length of hachiku bamboo yields just three to four chasen. This is due to the joints on the bamboo. Each chasen needs to have the joint at a particular distance from the head- exactly 9 centimeters above the joint and three centimeters below it.
Carving the Chasen
After shaving just the outer layer of the bamboo, the section above the joint is split into 16 equal parts. Imagine holding a long dinner candle and carving it from the top down to the middle to make 16 equal cuts! Each section of the bamboo is about 4 millimeters wide, then the inner part of each strip is carved out, leaving a skin about 1 millimeter thick. Each of these strips is then further split into 10! One millimeter is about the width of a needle. This makes 80 outer tines and 80 inner ones, so 160 in total. This will be an 80-tine whisk. There are 100 tines and 120 as well.
The next step, called aji-kezuri, is the shaving of the tines. Remember, these tines are 1 millimeter or less in thickness, yet the master is going to shave them down even further. The tines need to be soaked in hot water to soften them before the inside of the tine is shaved. This is a delicate process where the artisan is working purely by feel.
What follows next is called mentori, or gently rounding the ends of the outer tines, which is one of the most delicate steps and is what prevents the matcha from sticking to the tines.
The artisan now weaves dazzling colored thread in and out to separate the tines (known as shitaami) and wraps the thread twice around the outside (uwaami). He then inspects and removes any stray bamboo chips or dust at the base before gripping the inner tines and twisting them to create this magnificent functional piece of art.
Watching this mesmerizing craft has given new meaning to my morning bowl of matcha. The love Tanimura san puts into his chasen infuses my tea with magic. If you would like to visit Tanimura san in Nara, or would like to be put on the waiting list for a custom-made chasen with thread color of your choice, please comment below! I encourage you to connect with Wanobi to see more of beautiful artisan Japan.
This article has been reformatted and updated from the original July 2018 publication.
Images provided and copyright held by author