In a simple way, the Japanese bamboo whisk, known properly as a “Chasen” is the sublime instrument of the Japanese Tea Ceremony or “Chado”. Using a Chasen during your tea ceremony will enhance your appreciation for the traditional beauty and sober philosophy of the ceremony.
In this article, I will take you through the many aspects of the Japanese Chasen, including its deep history and proper care and use. It is my hope that, in the end, you will incorporate the beauty of this simple wooden tool toward a daily discernment of Ichigo, Ichie・, the Japanese philosophy of each 登nce in a lifetime moment.
The Japanese Chasen is a Tool
The Chasen is probably the most recognized of the tea tools or “Chadōgu”. It is a bamboo whisk. Its purpose is to mix the matcha powder and hot water, as well as to coax the matcha into its sweet frothy peaks of minuscule bubbles that are so important in a delicious bowl of matcha, especially Matcha Usucha.
Traditional Chasens are handmade from a single piece of specially chosen bamboo. The bamboo shoot is carefully cut and seasoned for up to two years. Then, the cane tube is sectioned. The string section is peeled and split then split again into the proper diameter and number of strings. It is then bound with threads. Finally, the edges are shaved and shaped into perfect form.
Do You Need to Use a Chasen?
Does racquetball need a racket? Does a car need an engine? Does a ballerina need pointe shoes?
I suppose philosophically the answer is “no”. That is because without a racket you can have a good game of handball; because without an engine you can have a good soapbox derby; and without pointe shoes, there is a dance with form, strength, and alignment.
Realistically, however, racquetball requires a racket tool for ball placement. A car needs an engine as the tool for its purpose for speed. And a ballerina needs pointe shoes as a tool to generate the image of weightlessness and floating in the dance.
So goes the Chasen whisk.
A matcha whisk is a tool so instrumental in properly blending the matcha powder and water. It is the solitary tool that draws the matcha into the light sweet froth that floats atop the bowl. Without Chasen, there is no dance.
Many matcha “neophytes” have tried using a blender or fork. But, the Chasen will always enhance and harmonize the philosophy and flavor that is Japanese matcha. It is the tool for a perfect cup of matcha.
Why you should be whisking matcha
The main reason why matcha is to be whisked is that matcha does not dissolve well with hot water. When you take matcha, it looks like it is dissolving, but if you closely look at the matcha liquid; you find a lot of particles floating which make the tea look like it is dissolved. When you leave the tea for a few minutes, you notice that the particle will eventually settle on the bottom.
Whisking is also popular for another obvious reason; it tastes good. : ) The air bubbles created by whisking make the tea taste milder.
Discover the History of the Japanese Chasen
The Japanese Chasen was first crafted in the small Japanese village of Yuwa Takayama around 600 years ago. This was during the Muromachi period between 1336 and 1573.
The Chasen story goes like this. Originally, the Chanoyu Tea Ceremony was only for the elite of Japanese society. The creator of “The Simple Tea Ceremony” (Wabi-cha) was a man named Murata Juko, who wanted to introduce its beauty and philosophy to the common people.
Murata commissioned Takayama Minbunojo Nyudo Sosetsu to craft Chasens for the ceremony. Being pleased with Takayama's whisks, Murata Juko eventually gifted some of Takayama's Chasens to the Emperor who was astounded by their beauty and craftsmanship.
The Emperor gave it the name “Takaho”. Over time the Takaho Chasen became known as the Takayama Chasen.
The art of crafting Chasens was (and still is) handed down from father to son. Its craftsmanship was a tightly held secret within the family. Made from a single piece of young bamboo with strings measuring only .1mm, the work is so intricate that only a few Chasens can be made each day.
Today, almost 90% of traditional Japanese Chasens are still produced in the area of Takayama by master Japanese artisans who have passed the craft through its generational family artisans. The Takayama Chasens we use today continues to hold true to its tradition and the secrets of the artistry.
It is said that in all of Japan there remain only 15 craftsmen certified to create Japan's Takayama Chasen.
How to Choose Your Chasen
The traditional Chasen is crafted from a solitary piece of young bamboo. It is created in an array of thicknesses and strings. A Chasen matcha whisk can be found with string counts between 16 and 120 tines. Higher string counts make it simple to whisk your matcha into the traditional froth that gives matcha its sweet texture and airy quality. The reverse can be said about the lower string count.
In selecting your Chasen, the highest artisan quality is revealed in the choice of bamboo, as well as the precision cuts and form of each string (as intricate as 0.1mm).
Matcha lovers know that there are two types of matcha: koicha and usucha.
Koicha is green tea matcha made into a thick consistence. So, when making Koicha, a whisk with a lower string count (16 to 48) works well. Consider the following Chasens for Koicha:
- Hiraho (平穂) contains 16 strings
- Araho (荒穂) contains 36 strings
- Chuaraho (中荒穂) contains 48 strings
Usuchu is green tea matcha made with a thinner consistence. So, when making Usuchu, a whisk with a higher string count (68 to 120) works best to coax the delightful foam we so love. Consider the following Chasens for Usuchu:
- Kazuho (数穂・繁穂) contains 68 to 74 strings
- Hachijuppondate (八十本立) contains 75 to 80 strings
- Hyappondate (百本立) contains 81 to 95 strings
- Hyakunijuppondate (百二十本立) contains 96 to 120 strings.
A Good Compromise
If you love both consistencies and want one Chasen to do the trick, your best option is a Tsuneho that is made with 64 strings.
My Personal Advice When You're Buying a Matcha Whisk.
My personal advice (not because I am Japanese) is to buy made in Japan whisk. I have seen many bamboo products with lots of pesticide and bleach to avoid the bamboo to mold. It is said that there is no regulation about it, but I had one that when I opened the package; it made me feel sick for the entire afternoon because of the chemical being trapped in the plastic container. I haven’t seen them when I buy from Japanese companies.
How to Properly Use a Chasen
To become a Japanese tea ceremony master takes time and study. Anyone, however, can become adept at properly using a Chasen whisk to make a delicious Chawan (bowl) of Japanese green tea matcha.
Chasens are crafted from fragile strings of natural bamboo. They are delicate and should be protected from direct impact with the Chawan bowl when mixing. So, when whipping your matcha, avoid striking the tines against the Chawan bottom and sides.
How to Whisk Matcha
To use your Chasen follow these simple steps:
- Soak the Chasen in hot or boiling water for approximately 20 to 30 seconds to soften the strings. Occasionally turn inside the bowl.
Faster the better and you want to make sure that bamboo tips are scraping the bottom of the bowl, but not hard enough to be pressing down.
- Fill your Chawan matcha bowl with boiling water.
- Add your Japanese green tea matcha powder.
- Mix/Whisk the matcha by rapidly moving the Chasen in an “M” and “W” direction, back and forth until your matcha forms a foamy froth on top with tiny bubbles.
- Add more water if needed to form tiny bubbles.
- Slowly remove the Chasen using a slow swirling motion to “lift” the foam.
Note: For best results, arch your wrist over the Chawan and keep the movement of whisking only by the wrist.
Whisking creates a very good aroma of the tea so make sure to enjoy the aroma while whisking. : )
How to Care for a Chasen
The Japanese Chasen whisk is created from natural bamboo wood and subject to natural wear and decline. However, when you properly care for your Chasen it will last beyond the mass-produced chasens on the market. A healthy Chasen will assure that the natural infusions and essence of your quality Japanese matcha is optimized with each bowl.
When you first open a new Chasen, you will notice that the core of the whisk is tight. But once you begin using it, the core will loosen up and enhance the whisking process. This is called “blooming”.
Follow the steps below to assure that your bamboo Chasen lasts for years.
Clean Your Chasen Before and After Each Use
Clean your Chasen before the first use. This simply removes any impurities that may have occurred during packaging and transit and loosens the core.
To clean the Chasen use either of the following options:
- Fill a bowl or Chasen with hot or boiled water and immerse the Chasen tines for about 30 seconds.
- Hold the Chasen strings under gently running hot or boiled water for a few seconds to remove any residue.
Clean your Chasen the same way after each use.
Note: Never leave the Chasen handle soaking in water as it can crack or fray.
Allow Your Chasen to Dry
After you have made your matcha and washed the Chasen, it is imperative that you allow it to dry thoroughly. The best way to dry your Chasen is to rest it on a Chasen holder, or 徒usenaoshi・. The best quality Chasens will come with a holder for drying and storage.
If you don't have a Chasen holder, then dry the Chasen by standing it on its handle, never the strings.
Note: If your bamboo Chasen is not properly dried, damp tines can grow mold or splinter due to the natural wood product from which it is made. Additionally, the fragile Chasen strings could become loose or fall out completely and minimize the effectiveness of the whisk.
Store Your Chasen to Avoid Damage
Proper storage of your Chasen is probably the main way to achieve an optimal life. It is best to store your Chasen the same way you dried it, preferably on a whisk holder. Storing the Chasen on a holder helps to maintain the shape of the bamboo strings and will prevent premature damage, as well.
There are three names for Chasen holders: (Even with different names, they are all the same.)
These are mostly made with ceramic and some have a nice design on them. In Japan, there are ones made with wood as well, but I couldn’t find them online in USA.
Chasen Fun Facts
- In the 12thCentury, only Japanese nobles could partake of the Chado
- In Takayamu, Japan artisans craft over 60 types of Chasens
- The purpose of the tea ceremony or school of tea will be defined by the Chasen's bamboo, unique shape, and thread color used.
- Never clean your Chasen with soap or in a dishwasher, as either can damage it.
- Never dry or store your Chasen with the tines resting on a hard surface.
- Quality made Chasens with proper daily use can last about 2 years.
- All bamboo whisks are denoted with the character “ 筅”, with the exception of Takayama whisks that are denoted with the character “筌” to signify its extraordinary tradition and qualities.
- Traditional Japanese Chasens are on display in the Louvre Museum, France.
- The traditionally-made Japanese Takayama Chasen is considered only 1 of 222 officially registered “Traditional Craft of Japan” by Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. It is designated by a special registry mark.
- The skill in the Japanese Tea Ceremony rests not in the making of the tea but rather understanding the true meaning of the “Way of Tea” and the proper use of the Chadōgu tools (茶道具).
Well, may your beautiful experience with the Japanese Chasen begin. Experience the purpose and essence of the Chasen tradition. Allow the dance that is the Japanese Tea Ceremony be enhanced as you cause this single moment to entwine you with the philosophy of what is Ichigo, Ichie.
Until next time, Enjoy!
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