As the chasen twirls around the ceramic bowl, flexing easily to the vessel’s shape, it sings a tune, coming to a crescendo before moving softly into silence. As one withdraws the chasen, a cloak of perfect, minute bubbles perch atop the vibrant green liquid. The matcha is ready.
The tea ceremony, or wabi-cha, has been an artistic and cultural ritual in Japan for more than 500 years. Chado, or “The Way of Tea,” emerged in the 16th century and applies to making matcha in particular. Unlike other teas, matcha is made using tea leaves ground in stone mills, then whisked. The whisking tool is the chasen, which consists of an outer ring of thin bamboo tines that curve toward an inner cone like tiny talons. When used to mix, the chasen functions to suspend (rather than dissolve) the matcha in the hot water.
The 80- to 240-tined chasen are hand-crafted out of a single piece of bamboo in an eight-step process so specialized that even professional producers can only make about 10 chasen per day. The artisan hand-shaves and shapes each individual tine, separating the inner cone from the outer whisk from the outer whisk using a woven thread. The town of Takayama, known for its bamboo forests, has produced chasen for centuries. Today, craftspeople from Takayama still produce 90 percent of Japan’s chasen, but few skilled chasen artists remain. It may take a new generation of tea lovers and bamboo crafters to revive this fading tradition.
Despite this specialized labor and intricate tool, tea masters claim the rustic chado is deceptively simple. According to a poem by zen student Sen no Rikyū:
[The Way of] Tea is naught but this;
First you heat the water,
Then you make the tea.
Then you drink it properly.
That is all you need to know.