Styles and customs of bygone times are constantly coming back. Desiring to return back to the roots, we are keen to reach for very old traditions and incorporate them into pop culture turn them into elements of pop culture. These traditions – deeply rooted in history and philosophy – are without a doubt still valid and their presence seems to be continually up to date and natural.
TRENDS IN NO DANGER OF PASSING
There is no question that matcha becomes very fashionable – it attracts interest among various circles, quickly spreading across cafes and stores. We import gaudy matcha flavoured sweets from Japan, we add matcha to our superfood cocktails, and we use a cup of it to enhance our image in social media. Although matcha tea has conquered the modern world, it still remains a part of the archaic culture of Far East.
Yoga is undergoing a similar process. There are more and more schools, courses, field workshops and weekend outdoor classes in public parks. You can buy mats and clothes in every imaginable colour and attend a class of a celebrity yoga instructor. But despite the modern 21st century context, yoga remains a spiritual just as it has been functioning for millennia.
Trends like this are in no danger of passing. They trigger changes we don’t reject as out-of-date trends. Moreover they work together surprisingly well! Even though yoga and matcha don’t share the same roots historically and geographically, they complement each other in an exceptional way.
Green tea appeared in Japan at the end of the 12th century. It came from China along with Buddhist monks for whom it has been an inseparable part of Zen. At one point it began to be used in powdered form and that’s when the tea ceremony – chadō (meaning ‘the way of tea’) was born. Matcha helped monks to be more alert and enabled them to find peace of mind – those elements are crucial when it comes both to meditation and to its unusual form: the tea ceremony.
The term ‘yoga’ relates to the whole system of Indian philosophy dealing with the mind-body connection. Its oldest traces have been found in the Indus Valley and are dated 2300-1500 B.C. Types of yoga, based on body positions (asanas), breath control and cleansing techniques, like hatha, vinyasa or ashtanga, are popular these days in the West, but they got here only ‘a moment ago’ – they started gaining attention as late as in the mid 19th century.
MATCHA AND YOGA – A GOOD MATCH
Matcha is made from the youngest tea leaves in which the vital energy is stored. Few weeks before the harvest, the tea bushes are covered to prevent direct sunlight – that helps them to protect valuable substances. Whenever we drink a bowl of matcha we consume the whole powdered leaves, therefore we assimilate a lot more nutrients and benefits than from a regular tea – this means a higher concentration of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fibers. We should remember, however, not to add water that is higher than 80 Celsius degrees – the excessive heat kills valuable substances and destroys the taste.
The caffeine content for a teaspoon of matcha is 2 grams. Unlike caffeine in coffee, caffeine in matcha is slowly absorbed and has a lasting energy boost for the body. Amino acids (especially L-theanine) present in matcha tea bind to the caffeine and slow down its absorption into the bloodstream. As a result, there’s no rapid cortisol delivery or adrenaline spike that leaves the body craving for more caffeine. Compared to coffee, matcha, which needs up to six hours to get absorbed, offers some calm sense of awareness and alertness and charges our stamina.
This combination makes matcha an ideal partner for yoga. On the one hand yoga is a sport that requires physical fitness, on the other it is a practice of meditation in which concentration and mindfulness are essential. Yoga and matcha are a perfect match – they complement each other and reinforce their own unique effects. A pot of matcha makes perfecting the yoga practice easier and practicing yoga helps us to become an expert in celebrating the matcha tea ceremony.
Today is one of the most exciting days I have been looking forward to in my journey across Japan. I have been driving for more than thirty minutes now, leaving the city far behind. According to the map, I should be reaching my destination very soon. After a few minutes of wandering between the households of the neighbourhood, I recognize a complicated kanji character on one fence – it’s the family name I’ve been trying to memorize last night. The owner welcomes me and invites me to the house. We pass by a pile of cut bamboo trees in the garden. Behind the house I see a tiny private tea field. Before we proceed with the purpose of our meeting, I’m giving my host omiyage, a travel souvenir that’s almost a must-do in Japan. Among other things, I obviously brought our matcha from Poland.
I sit down on the tatami mat, unable to stop admiring everything that surrounds me in the interior of this house. He joins me after a while, carrying a box of cookies, over which we will discuss what we have planned for today. There’s tea, as well. Smelling so good that I almost cannot focus. It’s early May, could it be fresh, this year’s harvest? I ask if he used his home-grown tea that I spotted behind the house.
– I’m happy to hear you enjoy it! And I have great news. This cup of tea is made with matcha that you brought for us as a gift. You know its taste already, and I wanted to see you catch the difference. Now you understand the purpose of my work, and we haven’t even started yet!
We are sitting in the living room of Mr. Jun Tanimura, representative of the 20th generation in the family of the oldest chasen makers in Japan. For five hundred years they have been running their shop in Takayama area in Nara prefecture. These days, this is where all the hand-carved chasens in the country come from. I am here to learn how they are brought into existence.
Chasen 茶筌 is a matcha tea whisk made from a single piece of bamboo tree, which is used in Japanese tea ceremony. Obviously, if you’re using low quality matcha, the result will not be great, even if you mix it with an expensive, handmade chasen. Today I’m about to learn that it works both ways, though. You can use the best, most premium tea in Japan; without an equally excellent bamboo whisk, you won’t be able to bring out its entire richness of taste.
An experienced craftsman needs around three hours to bring one chasen to life. An average workday at the Tanimura workshop yields around thirty whisks. The demand is high, even though they don’t work with ordinary shops. They only produce chasens for institutions associated with tea ceremony, as well as for special individual orders.
We are heading to the workshop, passing by the pile of trees again. The first and most important step in the chasen manufacturing process is the material – a healthy bamboo tree of a suitable diameter. Various species can be used, depending on the type of the whisk (which, in turn, depends on the school of tea ceremony). Dark chasens, which are made of coloured wood today, are not different from regular ones in terms of price and quality. Interestingly enough, they were once a very luxurious product. The dark colour was only a quality of the wood ‘smoked’ above irori (a traditional, interior hearth present in old Japanese houses) for around a hundred years. But the development of technology and new architecture reduced the supplies of this (once originating incidentally) material.
To obtain wood suitable for making chasens, trees should be cut around the age of three years. After cutting they are simmered in order to get rid of dirt and oil. Then, around January and February, they are spread on the rice fields (not used in this time of year), where the icy winds toughen them and turn their colour from natural green to white. Then they are left to mature for two or three years. That’s when the wood dries and gets its light amber shade.
Although around 15 cm of bamboo is all that’s required to create each chasen, one tree will only provide three or four suitable pieces. That’s because the placement of joints (called nodes) on the culm is crucial. But the rest does not go to waste – Mr. Tanimura uses it to make other tea ceremony utensils (i.e. chashaku, the teaspoon, and hishaku, the water ladle), as well as wooden containers and decorations.
A piece of bamboo prepared for a chasen is gently shaved in its upper half with a side of a knife. It softens the surface and makes the work easier. Next, it is vertically cut in half (only on the level of the shaved upper part), then cut in four, eight and at last sixteen 4-mm-thick sections. They are carefully, but firmly bent to the outside.
Every branch needs to be divided to skin and flesh now. The border between them is distinctly visible on the photograph. The inner bright part is the flesh, which is easy to remove once it’s separated. What remains is the thin strip of darker skin, which is now cut crosswise very thinly into tines called ho. Usually there is around one hundred of them (depending on the type of whisk, from 16 up to 160). Bamboo is a fibrous wood that easily divides into individual threads, nevertheless this step requires time and precision.
The carved section is left to soak in hot water to make it more flexible. After one hour, ho are put on the wooden matrix and shaved with a small knife until very thin, especially on the tips. Then, using the same knife, the craftsman curves them slightly to the inside.
This step is a true test for skills in the craftsman’s hands. The bristles have to be really thin to be elastic, but thick enough to remain strong. Their size is determined by feeling and intuition of the craftsman, resulting from many years of practice and experience passed on from past generations.
The sides of each tine (ho) are rounded to prevent fine tea powder from sticking to their sharp edges. The process of manufacturing is slowly coming to an end. Chasen is still missing the thread. It will divide the tines in half, creating an outer and an inner row. The outer bristles are carved to form the final shape of a chasen. The inner ho are grabbed by hand and twisted a few times to create a coiled cusp that, with time and use, will open like a flower. The chasen is ready, it’s time to start heating water for the tea.
For better understanding of the entire process, we encourage you to watch this film from the Tanimura workshop.
I ask about the lifespan of a chasen, but Mr. Tanimura’s answer is vague. There are numerous theories; I once heard about a man who only uses each chasen three times. I found that unreasonable, quite rightly, as it turns out. The expert sitting next to me says that in his hands each chasen works flawlessly for around six months of everyday use. – But there’s no rule – he adds. – You simply need to observe the situation and let your chasen go once it stops giving you satisfying results.
Your hand-whisked cup of matcha will taste much better today than it has before, won’t it?