Of the many types of Japanese teapot, the most versatile and beginner-friendly is for sure the yokode kyūsu (横手急須 - side handle teapot) or just kyusu, for short. While houhin and shiboridashi are amazing for brewing green teas, kyusu are more versatile as the handle keeps you from burning your fingers when using hotter water. This means that they can be used for all kinds of tea, not just green tea.
Though it may seem bizarre at first, the side-mounted handle lets you comfortably pour tea with a simple twist of the wrist, which is quicker and easier than the larger arm movements that back- or top-handled teapots require. The placement of the handle also allows you to place your thumb on the lid of the pot, securing it in place while pouring.
Most kyusu also have some sort of ceramic filter or steel mesh at the spout which strains the tea liquor from the leaves. While steel mesh filters are cheaper and have finer holes than ceramic filters, we generally recommend using teapots with ceramic filters. Over time, the steel can rust, adding unwanted tastes to the tea
Ceramic filters come in a variety of styles, each with their own pros and cons:
Do-ake (direct): These filters are simple holes made directly in the wall of the teapot. While simple and unobstructive, these filters tend to clog easily if you pour too quickly, and tend to have larger holes which are not good at straining more broken tea leaves.
Debeso (half-spherical): These filters are less likely to clog than direct filters, but are often slower to pour through.
Sasame/Ceramesh: The newest and most popular style or ceramic filter, these filters are a ceramic version of many steel mesh filters. They are wider and flatter than debeso filters and usually have finer holes, making them quick, less likely to clog, and more suitable for broken leaf teas like fukamushicha. While they are very similar, the main difference between sasame and ceramesh is that sasame filters are slightly convex and ceramesh are flat or concave.
For beginners, we highly recommend kyusu with either debeso or ceramesh/sasame filters.
Kyusu are generally smaller than most western teapots, as Japanese tea is served in smaller quantities and is usually re-steeped, allowing for multiple infusions. The typical size for a kyusu is around 200-300ml. These are great for serving 2-3 people or for larger western-sized mugs of tea.
While this is the ‘standard size’ in Japan, many tea enthusiasts prefer smaller teapots, around 100-150ml, as they are better for solo brewing and high-ratio brewing. This size is especially popular for Chinese tea enthusiasts as it is closer to the sizes of Chinese gaiwans and teapots. For those just getting started, however, this size can be limiting.
As a rule of thumb, you should only use 80-90% of a kyusu’s volume to avoid clogging. You can also underfill a kyusu if you just want to brew a small amount. With this in mind, we generally recommend sticking with the 200-300ml size for your first Japanese teapot.
While most kyusu are a suitable shape for beginners, there is one style that may not be: the flat kyusu or hira-kyusu (平急須). These extremely short and wide kyusu are explicitly designed to brew Japanese green teas. As these teas’ leaves tend to unfurl horizontally, the flat shape provides even water distribution, and a large water surface area for cooling. While they are amazing teapots, they are not particularly versatile, as other teas, such as ball-rolled oolongs, tend to expand vertically as they brew, which would not fit well in a hira kyusu.
Perhaps the most versatile shape is the spherical maru-gata (丸形) which is equally wide and tall.
Kyusu can be sorted into two categories: glazed and unglazed.
Glazed kyusu are generally made from porcelain or stoneware that is covered in a vitreous glaze, meaning that the surface of the teapot is non-porous and does not interact with the water or the tea. This ensures that the taste of the tea is unaffected by the clay, and conversely, that the clay is unaffected by the tea. Because of this ‘transparency’ in taste and aroma, glazed porcelain wares are the preferred choice for professional tea tasting and evaluation.
It is worth noting that some glazes are somewhat porous, such as many Hagi and kohiki wares.
Unglazed kyusu are made from porous stoneware, and have no barrier between the clay and the water. Apart from being aesthetically pleasing, unglazed clay can also affect the way tea brews inside the teapots (this only applies to unglazed interiors, of course). This is because the clay is somewhat porous and interacts with the water while the tea steeps. The two main clays used to make unglazed kyusu — Tokoname and Banko — are both said to reduce astringency and bitterness when brewing green tea, while accentuating its body and sweetness.
Most Japanese clays have relatively low-porosity, especially when compared to the clays used to make many Chinese teapots, so they will not easily become ‘seasoned’ with the taste of a particular tea. Because of this, they are very versatile and can be used with practically any tea.
While porcelain and glazed teapots are very versatile and easier to care for, we recommend using unglazed clay Tokoname-yaki kyusu, as it is still very versatile, while also having the benefit of improving the taste of some teas.
With all this in mind, we think that the ideal teapot for beginners in Japanese tea or specialty tea in general is a round, Tokoname-yaki kyusu, with a ceramic filter and capacity of 200-300ml. These three are our personal recommendations and we also offer them as part of our starter set:
If you primarily drink alone or enjoy high-ratio or gong fu brewing, then a smaller 80-150ml kyusu may be ideal.
Lastly, if you've found this helpful, please share it with friends who are starting their tea journey.