Like its tea, Japan's teaware can be complex and confusing for the uninitiated, so we'd like to take some time to introduce three of the main types of Japanese teapots and explain what makes each of them unique and useful. Each of these types deserves a dedicated article (or two) but for now, let's stick to the basics:
- The Workhorse: the Kyusu
- The Refined: the Houhin
The Specialist: the Shiboridashi
The Workhorse: the Kyusu
In Japanese, 急須 (kyuusu) refers to any type of teapot, but outside of Japan, the term kyusu is usually used to refer to relatively small side-handled teapots. Called 横手急須 (yokode kyuusu) in Japanese, these side-handled teapots are by far the most popular way to brew Japanese tea, and for good reasons: they’re easy to use, versatile, and relatively affordable.
A kyusu’s side handle lets you comfortably pour tea with a simple twist of the wrist, which is considered more elegant 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.
Though they come in a huge variety of sizes, shapes, and materials—each suited for a different tea, situation or taste—kyusu are incredibly versatile and can be used for practically any tea.
The Refined: the Houhin
Also spelled hohin, hobin, or houbin, the houhin (宝瓶 - houhin/houbin) is like the kyusu's handleless cousin. Its name means "treasure bottle" in Japanese as the houhin is primarily used for higher grade teas like kabusecha, gyokuro, and competition grade sencha. All of these are brewed at lower temperatures, so houhin don't need handles as the water isn't hot enough to burn your fingers.
Like kyusu, houhin have filters or meshes at the spout to strain the tea, however, these filters tend to be simpler with larger holes which the larger, more intact leaves of higher-quality teas won’t pass through.
Houhin have relatively straight walls that either go up vertically or flare in an inverted cone shape. This flatter, more open shape lets the water cool down quicker and is also believed to aid in the extraction of umami flavours from the leaves.
Because they are used for steeping high-quality teas, houhin are smaller than most kyusu, usually under 200ml in capacity, which allows for a greater concentration of taste and aroma.
The Specialist: the Shiboridashi
Similar in construction to a chinese gaiwan, shiboridashi are the simplest type of Japanese teapot, consisting of only a spouted bowl and a lid. While houhin are in fact excellent for brewing gyokuro, the shiboridashi is specially designed for it, allowing you to extract the most flavour out of the leaves. As such, shiboridashi tend to be even smaller and even flatter than houhin, often under 100ml in capacity and shaped like a shallow bowl or dish.
Unlike kyusu and houhin, shiboridashi have no filter, instead using the narrow gap between the lid and the body to separate the liquor from the leaves. Additionally, most shiboridashi also have fine grooves carved into the bowl at the spout which helps keep the leaves from being poured out.
In Japanese, 絞り出し急須 (shiboridashi kyuusu) roughly translates to "squeeze-pour teapot", as the design of the teapot allows you to squeeze every last drop of the liquor from the leaves. On most shiboridashi, the lid rests on a lip just like with kyusu and houhin. This means that the gap at the spout remains at a fixed size. However, many high-end, handmade shiboridashi have no such lip, allowing this gap to be adjusted.
We hope this brief introduction helped you make sense of some of the teaware and terminology used for high-quality Japanese tea. Check back for more detailed articles dedicated to each type of teapot as well as for articles about the many other types of teapots and teaware used in Japan.