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?