There’s something quite wonderful about using a chasen (matcha bamboo whisk) to make matcha tea.
Not only does it help you to make better cups of smooth, frothy matcha, it also creates a special connection between you, the user, and its maker.
History of Matcha Whisks
Bamboo utensils have been used to make cups of matcha for over 500 years.
The first matcha tea whisks, known as “chasen” in Japanese, were made in Takamaya in the Nara Prefecture during the Muromachi period (1336-1573).
According to legend, Murata Juko, known as the founder of the Japanese tea ceremony, requested Lord Takayama to make him some tea whisks. The tea whisks made by Lord Takayama were presented to the Emperor Go-Tsuchimikado who was delighted with them.
Takayama Chasen have been revered ever since and are now registered as a Traditional Craft of Japan, or “Kogei”, a special designation that denotes their importance to Japanese culture. Kogei are different from other crafts in that the manufacturing process must be completed by hand using traditional techniques to produce an item that is designed for everyday use. Only raw materials that have been extracted using traditional methods may be used and the craft must originate from a designated area or specific region of Japan. Above all, Kogei are expected to delight the senses, with each item crafted fulfilling a specific purpose and becoming more beautiful as it is used and ages.
There are now more than 60 different Japanese tea whisks. The design of each whisk varies depending on the type of bamboo, whether the whisk will be used to make usucha (“thin” matcha) or koicha (“thick” matcha), the setting in which the whisk will be used (formal or informal) and the preferences of the Japanese tea schools that traditional use them.
The tea whisk that most people in the West are familiar with is the Kazuho chasen used by the Urasenke tea school. It has straight tines with curled tips which help to froth the matcha when making usucha.
Making Matcha Bamboo Whisks
Making chasen by hand is a meticulous and time consuming process.
If white bamboo is required, the bamboo has to be seasoned over several years before it can be used. During winter, the bamboo is left out in the open in the rice fields around Nara where the exposure to the cold wind and sunlight slowly turns the bamboo white. The bamboo poles are stacked against each other to form small structures similar to a teepee.
Smoked bamboo is sometimes used for its darker, aged and more expressive appearance. Smoking the bamboo takes a particularly long time. In fact, some particularly beautiful and expensive chasen are made from bamboo that was previously inside the roof or ceiling of an old Japanese house. The bamboo may have sat there for hundreds of years, gradually being stained by the smoke rising from the fireplace beneath.
The Seven Stages Of Making a Matcha Bamboo Whisk
Splitting the Bamboo (“Hegi”)
Once the bamboo has been cut to the required length, the first part of the process is to split the bamboo to create the tines. Much like cutting a cake, the bamboo is repeatedly cut in half to create smaller and smaller slices. The number of splits depends on the thickness of the bamboo but ranges from 12 to 24. Once the bamboo has been split, the pulp inside the bamboo is removed and the splits are bent outwards.
Fine Splitting (“Kowari”)
The base tines are split further in much the same way as before to create thinner tines. The final number of tines will depend on the type of whisk being made. The Kazuho whisk that is commonly found in the West has 80 tines. It has 16 base splits, each of which is split further into 10 thinner tines which gives 160 tines in total – an outer ring of 80 tines and an inner ring of 80 tines.
Shaving The Tips (“Ajikezuri”)
The tips of the tines are soaked in hot water to soften them before they are carefully shaved and thinned from the base. The shape of the tip varies depending on the preferences of the tea school. For example, the tips of the tea whisks used by the Mushakouji Senke school are straight, while those used by the Urasenke school are often curved like a fish hook.
The edges of each tine are shaved to a 45 degree angle to prevent the matcha powder from sticking to them. This also helps to produce smaller bubbles in the foam.
Threading (“Shita-ami” and “Uwa-ami”)
A thread is run between each tine in order to keep them spread outwards. The tines are bound with thread once (shita-ami) and then once more to securely fix them to the base of the whisk (uwa-ami).
Most matcha whisks are tied with black threads so that any stains from the tea do not stand out although some tea schools use white threads. Yellow thread is used for Buddhist memorial services and red or red and white thread can be used for special celebrations.
A bamboo spatula is used to bring together the inner tines, and generally tidy up the whole head, including the size of the gaps between each tine.
The final touches. The shape of the whisk head is perfected and the tines are checked one last time before the whisk is packaged (typically inside a small presentation box) and ready for use.
Choosing The Right Tea Whisk For You
Every handmade matcha whisk is unique and beautiful in its own way.
As we’ve seen though, making chasen by hand takes a long time and requires great skill. This is why handmade chasen are more expensive than their mass-produced counterparts.
At Saihōji, we supply two different matcha whisks made by master craftsman Sabun Kubo. Mr Kubo’s workshop is in Nara and his family have been making tea whisks for an incredible 24 generations. He has won numerous awards for his craft and his whisks have even been exhibited at the Louvre Museum in Paris.
This depends on whether or not you like your matcha to have foam.
Foam or No Foam
The most popular way to prepare matcha in the West is in the usucha style with lots of foam on top.
Our traditional Shin Kazuho whisk works best for making usucha. It excels at creating a very fine layer of foam with small bubbles and is from the family of Kazuho whisks that are favoured by the Urasenke tea school.
Our Shin Kazuho whisk can also be used to make koicha (thick matcha) but it works best at making usucha.
Many people actually prefer to drink their matcha with less foam and several of the tea schools in Japan, such as the Omotesenke and Mushakouji-senke tea schools, prepare their matcha with no foam.
If you would like to try matcha with less foam or if you prefer drinking your matcha in smaller cups, our modern “muddler” whisk works best.
The longer stem and smaller head of the whisk allow you to whisk the matcha in small cups without aerating the matcha too much. In doing so, the whisk gently muddles the matcha with the water to make a tea with less foam.
How To Use A Matcha Bamboo Whisk
Once you have sifted your matcha into your bowl or cup, add the hot water and gently move the whisk through the water in an “M” shape.
Try to move the whisk only using your wrist rather than your whole arm and gradually increase the speed of the movements to create more foam.
If your matcha has a layer of foam with lots of large bubbles, you can gently stir the whisk around the cup in a circular motion to knock out some of the air to leave a finer crema.
Click here to watch our videos on how to make perfect cups of usucha and koicha.
How To Look After Your Tea Whisk
Matcha bamboo whisks are designed to be used regularly and replaced every few years.
After the first few uses, the tines will “bloom” and separate out slightly and after continued use some of the tines may break and the handle may crack. This is all part of the natural ageing process.
Some tips on taking care of your chasen so it lasts longer:
- Soak the tines in warm water for 30 seconds before using the whisk to keep the tines supple.
- Try to avoid scraping the bottom of the bowl when whisking the matcha as this can cause the ends of the tines to break.
- Rinse the tines thoroughly after using the whisk and shake off any excess water.
- Never use soap to clean your whisk.
- Stand the whisk upright after use to allow the tines to dry out or place the head of the whisk on a whisk holder if you have one.