The chasen (茶筅-tea whisk) is perhaps the most indispensable tool when it comes to making matcha, as none of the alternatives can compete with its ability to evenly mix the tea and create a thick yet fine mousse-like foam. Today, most matcha whisks are mass-produced outside of Japan. However, the highest quality chasen are still painstakingly made from locally grown bamboo in the small village of Takayama (高山) in northwest Nara prefecture, where they have been produced for over 500 years. Today, there are only 18 chasen masters remaining, who are carrying on their families’ traditions.
Here, we’ll take a deeper look into this iconic tool and see what sets apart artisanal Takayama chasen from their cheaper, mass-produced counterparts.
What is a Chasen?
A chasen is a tea whisk made from a single piece of bamboo, split into an array of delicate tines, used to whisk the matcha powder into a foamy usucha, or knead it into a thick paste as koicha. Though some form of tea whisk was used to whip up diancha in Song dynasty China and brought over to Japan, it is unclear what this tool looked like or how it was made. The first record of bamboo chasen in Japan dates back to the middle of the Muromachi period (1336-1573), where high-quality chasen from Takayama were requested by tea master Murata Jukō (村田珠光). These whisks were so good, they were later presented to the emperor. Since then, chasen artisans in Takayama have refined their craft and passed their skills on from generation to generation, with some chasen masters being of the 18th or even 25th generation. Today, however, only 18 such chasen masters remain, and to prevent their traditions from being lost, they have begun taking apprentices from outside of their family.
Chasen come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The most common being 80-tine, 100-tine, 120-tine, and shin. While the number of tines does increase from the 80-tine whisk through to the 120-tine whisk, the most noticeable difference in use is the wider diameter handle of the higher-tined whisks.
The shin (真) shape is one of the most popular due to its narrow handle and more elegantly curved tines, and is prefered by the two largest tea ceremony schools of Urasenke and Omotesenke (among many others). Having roughly 64 tines, the shin chasen sits in between dedicated usucha chasen such as the 100-prong, which have many thin tines, and dedicated koicha chasen, which have fewer but thicker tines. This makes shin-type chasen suitable both for whipping up a fine, foamy usucha and kneading a thick, rich koicha.
As almost every school of tea ceremony has its own preferred styles, there are dozens if not hundreds of other chasen shapes, such as the robust 36-tine Oaraho (大荒穂) for kneading koicha, the long handled Tenmokudate (天目立) for whisking tea in tenmoku bowls, and the straight-tined Kankyuu-an (官休庵) style prefered by the Mushakōjisenke school.
A particularly interesting design, is this unique whisk from Suikaen, a chasen producer headed by Yasaburo Tanimura (谷村弥三郎), a 25th generation chasen artisan. Featuring the same number and shape of tines as a standard kazuho, this whisk, whisk called a "Bubbling/foaming chasen" (泡点つ茶筌), has a longer handle, aiding in the quick formation of foam.
How are chasen made?
Each chasen starts its life as a piece of bamboo that has been dried for at least one to two years. The variety of the bamboo used determines the final appearance of the whisk. Typically, chasen are made from three varieties of bamboo: white (白竹- shiratake), soot-coloured (煤竹- susudake), or black (黒竹-kurotake).
Both white and black bamboo are naturally occuring, attaining their respective colours when the young green bamboo dries. Soot-coloured chasen, or susudake chasen, however, are made from pieces of bamboo taken from the ceiling of a traditional Japanese house, where it had been exposed to years of smoke and soot from the sunken charcoal hearth. This soot naturally stains the bamboo a beautiful deep brown over the course of decades and often centuries. As such, each piece of susudake is unique, and with the number of traditional Japanese houses on the decline, susudake is becoming increasingly rare and expensive.
After the bamboo is dried, there are eight steps taken that transform the raw material into a delicate instrument:
Haratake (原竹) - First, the bamboo is cut into roughly 12cm (4.5in) long segments with the node about ⅓ down the length, splitting the bamboo into two sections, with the longer side becoming the tines and the shorter side becoming the handle.
Katagi (片木) - After this, the craftsman begins to form the tines by shaving the outer layer of skin from the halfway point of the tine side to the tip. From here, the tine side is split in half down until the split nears the node. This is repeated until it has been divided into 16 segments. Then the craftsman bends each segment back, and using a knife, splits the hard outer skin from the soft inner flesh, which is removed.
Kowari (小割) - Each of these 16 segments are then split further, anywhere between two to eight times, resulting in chasen with between 36 and 120 tines, depending on the style.
Aji-kezuri (味削り) - After the tines are cut, the whisk is soaked in hot water to soften the bamboo, and then the craftsmen shaves the tines, tapering them from bottom to tip, with the final 1-2cm of the tines becoming thin, flexible, and translucent. While the bamboo is still soft, these flexible tips are curled inwards to create their distinctive shape. This is one of the most important and delicate steps, requiring years of practice and training.
Mentori (面取り) - Now the craftsmen shaves the corners off of each individual tine, which not only removes any rough edges, but also helps prevent matcha from sticking to the tines.
Shita-ami/Ua-ami (下編/上編) - After the tines are shaved, they are separated into the inner and outer rings by a row of threading that weaves back and forth around the tines so that half of them are in the inner circle and the other half form the outer circle. Then two additional rows of threading are added to secure everything in place, and the knot is tied at the front of the whisk. This threading is most commonly black, but different colours can be used for various effects. For example, if a chasen was to be used in a tea ceremony welcoming an ambassador from South Africa, then maybe threads representing their country's flag might be used.
Koshinarabe (腰並べ) - At this point, the whisk’s tines are all splayed out to make them easier to work with, so the craftsman readjusts them into their final shape, which often involves twisting the inner tines into a knot.
Shiage (仕上げ) - Lastly the finishing touches and inspection is performed by thea lead craftsman, who makes sure that all the tines are evenly spaced and form an even circle.
What Makes Takayama Chasen Different?
Unlike mass-produced matcha whisks, Takayama chasen are entirely handmade, without the use of machines or chemicals. In fact, they are often referred to using slightly different characters: 茶筌 rather than 茶筅, which implies that they make use of ‘all’ of the bamboo, elevating their craft to the level of art rather than simply being practical tools.
The difference begins even before the bamboo is cut. Takayama chasen makers source their bamboo locally, choosing high-quality pieces that have been grown without the use of any chemicals or fungicides to accelerate their growth. This superior raw material is evident in the flexibility and durability of the final product. There is also a great respect for the natural irregularities of bamboo, which are preserved and highlighted in unique chasen, rather than discarded.
The differences continue in the actual crafting, where the time spent, attention to detail, and honed skill of Takayama artisans truly shows, particularly during Aji-kezuri (味削り. As such, Takayama chasen tend to have much thinner, finer, and more elastic tine tips, which not only makes them more beautiful, but this extra flexibility actually aids in the production of foam.
How to care for a chasen
Among tea ceremony practitioners, chasen are seen as ‘consumables’, with the expectation that they will eventually wear down over time and need to be replaced. However, with the right care, these whisk can last for many years. Here are some important tips to keep in mind:
Always soak the chasen before using it
Soaking a chasen in warm or hot water for a few seconds softens the tines, making them more flexible, which in turn lets them whisk tea better and makes them less likely to break. In fact, it has been reported that bamboo is 20% stronger when wet.
Be careful while whisking
While the chasen will inevitably contact the bottom and the sides of the bowl while whisking, it is important not to use too much pressure to avoid scraping the tines roughly against the chawan, especially if it has a rough glaze.
Clean it gently right after use
After use, be sure to clean your chasen by whisking it in a bowl of water or running it under the tap, using your fingers or a cloth to remove any matcha that has stuck to the tines. Avoid soaps as these can enter and damage the porous bamboo. Stand the whisk up with the tines in the air and let it air dry thoroughly before storing it. This will ensure that the tines keep their shape longer and prevents mould growth.
Reshape as necessary
If the tines have lost a lot of their shape, you can re-splay and reshape them using a kusenaoshi, or matcha whisk shaper. While these are often sold as chasen stands, we prefer not to dry or store our whisks on them as the lack of airflow around the tines slows drying, which in turn can lead to mould growth. Additionally, the continual stress endured by the bamboo can cause it to become weaker.
We prefer using a kusenaoshi by pressing it gently but firmly into the tines while they are wet, causing them to splay, then removing the kusenaoshi and allowing the whisk to dry normally.
Always store the whisk standing up to ensure that the tines aren’t under any pressure which could cause them to weaken or deform over time. It is also worth noting that bamboo expands and shrinks according to humidity, and if the air is too dry, the whisk can crack.
How to use a chasen
To learn how to use a chasen to whisk up a bowl of usucha, check out our guide here.