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Chasen – Bamboo Tea Whisks

The Chasen “tea whisk” is the beautifully intricate implement used to mix powdered tea with hot water. The making of great matcha requires an equally great chasen, crafted by hand from meticulously selected bamboo.

The Chasen is skillfully hand-carved from a single piece of bamboo so that it won't warp or break easily. The peerless functional aesthetic of the tea whisk is a reflection of the Japanese soul. A whisk made in the town of Takayama is the genuine article, with a delicate finish and suppleness in its bamboo fibers that are not even remotely matched by cheap imported whisks. The secret to producing exceptional, dainty yet resilient whisks is to make maximum use of the most pliable Japanese bamboo.

Fine-grained hachiku (Henon bamboo) with its straight fibers, is the choice of the Urasenke tea school, and is best used when about three years old. The bamboo is first simmered to remove oil and dirt. If this step is neglected, the wood will soon become discolored. Then, in midwinter, the bamboo is sun-dried in the rice fields around Takayama, an area blasted by icy winds from January well into February. Over this month or so of drying, the green bamboo gradually turns a whitish hue. Left another two or three years in a store-house, it takes on a distinctive amber tone.

One length of hachiku bamboo yields only three or four tea whisks. This is because the joint on the whisk must be positioned precisely, with around 9 centimeters of bamboo above and 3 centimeters below.

After thinly shaving the outer layer of the bamboo piece, the section above the joint is split into 16 equal sections. Each split section is about 4 millimeters wide; then the inner part of each strip is carved out, leaving a skin about 1 millimeter thick. Each of these strips is then further split into 10. This way 80 outer and 80 inner tines – a total of 160 – are formed for a whisk that will be known by the number of outer tines; an 80-tine whisk.

Next in the process is aji-kezuri, or shaving of the tines. Measuring less than 1 millimeter thick, the tines are softened in hot water and shaved thinner on the inside, with the craftsman working purely by feel.

The step that follows is mentori (rounding the ends of the outer lines), a delicate operation that prevents matcha green tea powder from sticking to the tines.

Then the craftsman weaves in and out to separate the outer tines from the inner tines, a process known as shitaami , and wraps the thread twice around the outside (uwaami).

At the last stage any stray bamboo chips or dust remaining at the base of the tines are removed, then the craftsman grips the inner tines and gives them a couple of twists. Suddenly the final shape of the tea whisk is revealed.