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.
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.
To be concluded tomorrow.
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