Called sadou (茶道 - the Way of Tea) or chanoyu (茶の湯 - the Hot Water of Tea) in Japanese, the Japanese tea ceremony is a beautiful distillation of Japanese culture, aesthetics, and philosophies, encapsulated in the simple, yet refined motions of making and serving a bowl of matcha.
There are many unique and beautiful pieces of equipment used during a Japanese tea ceremony, each with a specific purpose and storied history. Usually called dougu (道具 - utensils/equipment) by practitioners of tea, this equipment is often used exclusively for chanoyu and as such can be confusing for those not familiar with the intricacies of tea ceremonies. Here, we’ll take a brief introductory look at some of the most important utensils and how they are used. While there are many other utensils used in chanoyu for charcoal, flowers, ash, etc., here, we’ll focus primarily on the basic utensils used during a temae (点前) which is the portion of a ceremony during which tea is made and served to the guests. We'll be looking at
A chawan (茶碗 - tea bowl) is a medium sized bowl, usually made from glazed stoneware or porcelain, in which the matcha is whisked, offered to the guest, and from which it is consumed. As such, chawan are perhaps the most central utensil of a tea ceremony and are many tea practitioners' most prized possessions. These bowls are often more than meets the eye, with every detail being used for artistic expression, from the humblest Raku bowl to the most glamorous Tenmoku chawan. Every chawan has a front or ‘face’ (正面 - shoumen) that is either determined by the potter, through some sort of decoration or glaze pattern, or if no such distinction is present, then the host will choose a side to be the shoumen.
While any bowl of the right size could theoretically be used as chawan, there are a few practical considerations that come into play when choosing a tea bowl. Since their creation in Song dynasty China and introduction to Japan, numerous distinct styles and shapes of chawan have emerged, as a result of the ever-evolving aesthetic tastes of tea practitioners and technological developments in Japanese pottery.
A chasen (茶筅-tea whisk) is 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. If the chawan is the most central utensil, the chasen is the most indispensable, as there is no suitable alternative.
Chasen are typically made from white (白竹-shiratake), black (黒竹-kurotake), or soot-coloured bamboo (煤竹-susudake), and come in a variety of shapes and sizes, with smaller chasen being used for portable chabako (茶箱-tea box) or for use in a nodate (野点-outdoor) setting. The most common chasen shapes are 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.
As many tea schools have their own preferred styles, there are dozens if not hundreds of other chasen shapes, such as the 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.
While most readily-available matcha whisks are mass-produced outside of Japan, 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.
The chashaku (茶杓 - tea scoop) is used to measure and transfer matcha from the natsume or chaire to the chawan. The most common type of chashaku seen today are made of a single piece of bamboo (usually shiratake, but also kurotake and susudake) roughly 18cm long with a node in the middle and a gentle curve at the tip which forms the bowl. This curve is made by gently bending a piece of soaked bamboo over a flame.
While the middle node placement (中節 - nakabushi) is the most common, bamboo tea scoops are also made with the node at the handle end opposite the bowl (止節 - tomebushi), or with no node at all (節無し - fushinashi). These correspond with the notions of sou (草 - informal), gyou (行 - semi-formal), and shin (真 - formal) respectively. These concepts are found throughout many tea ceremony philosophies since their introduction in the Edo period.
In addition to bamboo, chashaku are also made from various woods (raw or lacquered), precious metals, bone, horn, ivory, baleen, and even glass. It is thought that the original tea scoops used in Song dynasty China were ivory medicine spatulas. As such, ivory chashaku are among the most formal.
Historically, tea practitioners would carve their own chashaku, imbuing it with their personality and sense of aesthetics. For example, Rikyu’s chashaku have sharp bends, while Oribe’s have more sweeping curves and more pronounced bends at the node (蟻腰 - arigoshi). In a similar fashion to chasen, there are many lesser known styles and shapes of chashaku, each with a specific use or history.
Usuchaki (薄茶器 - thin tea vessel) are wooden or lacquered wood containers used to store and present the matcha used for making usucha (薄茶 - thin tea). Of these, the natsume (棗 - chinese date/jujube) style is the most common, and often usuchaki are referred to generally as natsume. Traditionally, natsume are made from turned wood and covered with urushi lacquer, though today cheaper plastic and resin options are commonly used for practice. The most formal or shin natsume are undecorated black lacquer, while red, vermillion, decorated, or unlacquered natsume are slightly more informal.
Natsume primarily come in three sizes: big (大棗 - O-natsume), medium (中棗 - chu-natsume), and small (小棗 - ko-natsume). Chu-natsume are by far the most common, and most natsume you encounter will likely be this size, around 6.8cm in height and diameter. Ko-natsume are typically paired with a silk pouch, shifuku, or wrapped in a fukusa, and are used to hold higher-grade matcha for making koicha (濃茶 - thick tea). Other usuchaki include the flat natsume (平棗 - hira-natsume), the cylindrical nakatsugi (中次), and its chamfered relative the fubuki (雪吹).
Chaire (茶入 - tea container), pronounced cha-ee-reh or chai-reh, are ceramic vessels used to hold high-grade matcha used to make koicha. Historically, chaire lids are made from ivory, coated with gold or silver leaf on the underside, which was thought to be a pure material that would discolour when it came into contact with poison, thus protecting one from drinking poisoned tea. While ivory lids made from stores of old ivory are still common in Japan, many alternatives are also being used, such as resin, galalith/lactoloid, porcelain, wood, lacquer, bone, and horn.
Chaire are also paired with a custom-made silk brocade pouch (仕覆 - shifuku) that is tied tightly with a drawstring. Older chaire had thinner ivory lids, which would bend slightly with pressure of the shifuku knot, and thus create a near airtight seal against the rim of the chaire. Traditionally, when a chasen changed owner, the new owner would have a new shifuku made with a different fabric.
Like most other tea utensils, chaire come in a variety of shapes and sizes, such as the katatsuki (肩衝- shoulder) and bunrin (文琳 - apple) shapes shown here. Chaire from China, called karamono (唐物 - Chinese object), are among the most highly valued meibutsu (名物 - masterpiece).
The kama (釜 - kettle) is the cast iron kettle which is used to heat up the water for making tea, and purifying and cleaning the utensils. Kama can typically be sorted into two categories: rogama (炉釜) which are large kettles that are placed into the ro (炉 - sunken hearth) for use during colder months, and furogama (風炉釜) which are placed atop a furo (風炉- portable charcoal brazier) for use during the warmer months. Kama are traditionally heated over high-quality Japanese charcoal, which is smokeless and odourless. However today, electric heating elements are also popular for when charcoal use is impractical or unsafe. Originally, only furo were used, until the development of wabi-cha when the tea ceremony was brought into smaller rooms where a ro was preferred.
The hishaku (柄杓) is a bamboo scoop used to measure and transfer water during a temae. Today, temae hishaku come in four different styles: ro (炉 - hearth/cold season), furo (風炉 - brazier/warm season), kennyo (兼用 - all season), and sashi-toshi (差し通し - pass-through). Ro hishaku have a larger cup and their handles are cut with an angle on top. Furo hishaku have smaller cups and their thinner handles are cut with the angle on the bottom. Fittingly, kennyo hishaku have a cup that’s roughly in between the furo and ro styles, with a handle that is cut straight.
These three types are all tsuki-gata: made from two pieces of bamboo that are held together simply through friction. Sashi-toshi hishaku, however, are made so that the handle passes through the cup and is fixed in place by a pin, which makes these hishaku much more durable. This is believed to be the original style of hishaku and as such, it is used primarily for more formal temae.
The mizusashi (水指 - fresh water container) is a lidded container used to hold fresh water for refilling the kama or rinsing the used chasen. They come in a large variety of shapes, styles, and materials, though are typically made from ceramic or lacquered wood. Along with the chawan and the natsume/chaire, they are one of the primary objects that decides the aesthetic theme set by the host. While the lid is usually made from the same material of the body, called tomo-buta (共蓋), often ceramic mizusashi are paired with a custom made lacquer lid called a kae-buta (替蓋). A rare exception is the Urasenke practice of ha-buta (葉蓋): using a broad leaf as a mizusashi lid during certain summer temae.
A futaoki (蓋置 - lid rest) is a small stand used to hold the lid of the kama or for resting the hishaku on. They are typically made of bamboo, ceramic, or metal, and come in a vast array of shapes and styles. While metal and ceramic futaoki can be quite ornate and are considered more formal, the common and basic bamboo types are largely undecorated and are the least formal style.
A kensui (建水 - waste water bowl) or koboshi (こぼし) is a receptacle for the water used to rinse and purify utensils and is usually placed out of the guests’ sight, to the left of the host. Kensui are most commonly made in various ceramic styles or out of metals such as copper or brass. These kensui generally have a wide, flaring mouth that makes it easy to pour water from the chawan into the kensui. A style that was historically popular around the time of Rikyu is made from wood bent into an elliptical shape.
A fukusa (帛紗) is an almost square silk purifying cloth roughly 28cm (11in) on each edge. It is made from a single piece of silk folded in half and sewn together on three sides, such that the final cloth is double-layered. Typically, men use plain purple fukusa, while women use plain red or orange/vermillion fukusa, though other colours and patterned fukusa can also be found. The cloth is used to ritually purify various utensils, such as the natsume, chaire, and chashaku. When not in use, it is kept tucked into the obi (帯 - kimono belt). For most schools it is worn on the left hand side, though warrior class schools such as Ueda Sōko and Enshu wear the fukusa on the right as to leave symbolic space for a katana which would be worn tucked into the obi on the left.
A chakin (茶巾 - tea cloth) is a small rectangular piece of bleached linen or hemp, measuring roughly 30cm (12in) by 15cm (6in). Before a tea ceremony, the chakin is soaked and wrung out so that it is ever so slightly damp, and folded and placed into the chawan, along with the chasen and chashaku. During the ceremony it is used to wipe and dry the purified chawan before and between bowls of tea.
Most chakin are quite similar, however there is some variation in the weave of the cloth, with some warrior-class schools preferring hoda chakin (保田茶巾) made from a coarser, more robust weave:
(On the left is the hoda weave and on the right is the standard chakin weave)
These are only a few of the many utensils that are used by tea ceremony practitioners. Check back to learn more about the other utensils and for deep-dives into each one.