Chasen (a bamboo tea whisk) (茶筅)

Chasen is one of the tea utensils used for preparing powdered green tea in the Japanese tea ceremony. It is used to stir the powdered green tea evenly into hot water in a tea bowl. As the powdered green tea is best known as the thick, frothy tea, the chasen is often mistaken for a kind of whipping tool, but actually it is not. Most chasen are made of bamboo, but there are also outdoor metal chasen.

Shape

The chasen is generally made of a piece of bamboo, one end of which is split into fine bristles, which are sharpened and curved inward. It usually measures nearly 12 cm in length, but the one used in Ochamori (a tea ceremony using giant tea bowls) held by Saidai-ji Temple (Nara City) is famous for its huge size of about 36 cm. The shape of a chasen depends on the school and the purpose. A piece of bamboo is used upside down, with the root-side end crafted into bristles.

Bristles

The bristles vary in number from 16 to 120 according to the intended use, and the standard chasen has 64 bristles. The above numbers refer to the bristles on the outer side, and a chasen with 64 outer-side bristles has 128 bristles in total, with inner-side ones included. The chasen with fewer, and thus thicker, bristles is more elastic, while an increased number of bristles makes the chasen finer. That is why thick tea is made by a chasen with fewer bristles, while thin tea is prepared by one having more bristles. Making the chasen with more bristles requires more sophisticated craftsmanship, and thus such a chasen has been regarded prestigious. Until the Meiji Restoration, chasen with 80 or more bristles had been for feudal lords or people of higher rank, and chasen with 120 bristles had been for shogun. Feudal lords made thick tea by using chasen called horai, which were made of large bamboo stalks so as to have an increased number of thick bristles. Making thin tea by using chasen with a smaller number of bristles requires skill, and using chasen with many bristles instead was one way for the feudal lords to show their inexperience with humility. For this reason, the chasen with 78 bristles is used.

Interlaced string

The string is called braided thread, darning thread, etc. Black string is commonly used, but white and red ones are also found, depending on schools and intended use. Chasen with red string is typically used for celebrations of longevity, and among them one having the knot on its upper part is used for kanreki (celebration of one's 60th birthday) and koki (cerebration of one's 70th birthday) and one without a knot is used for kiju (cerebration of one's 77th birthday) and beiju (celebration of one's 88th birthday).

Raw materials

Phyllostachys nigra is mainly used for making chasen, and not only typical Henon bamboo, but also types of bamboo that change color, such as Purple Bamboo, are used. The bamboo is cut down in its third winter, freed of oil by boiling, dried in the open air so that it becomes shiratake (white bamboo), and allowed to rest for a while (several months to years), before being processed. Green bamboo, before being dried in the sunshine, is also sometimes used for making chasen for the New Year, and kunchiku (old bamboo smoked for years) is used by some schools and for some purposes.

Processing

Roller cutting
Cut the bamboo into a cylindrical "roller" with a knot left in the middle of it. The standard length is just under 12 cm.

Stripping
Peel thinly the skin of the part of the bamboo that is to be crafted into bristles (root side). This process makes the part absorb hot water quickly, resulting in bristles with increased durability.

Rough splitting
Slit the root-side end on the piece of bamboo in 16 equal prongs down to near the knot. The number of equal prongs to be made varies from 12 to 24 according to the bamboo diameter and the intended number of bristles.

Thinning down
Bend each prong thus made outward and whittle the stem until only the skin is left.

Fine splitting
Split the prongs into the desired number of bristles. To make 80 bristles, split each one of 16 prongs equally into 5, each of which is to be further split into 2 unequal tines.

Shaving
Soak and soften the tines in hot water, and then shave the inner side as if rubbing them until they become thin enough.

Chamfering
Chamfer the tines on the outer row. That helps prevent the powdered green tea from sticking to the bristles while being used for making tea.

Inner and outer braiding
Braid a string so that the tines on the outer row expand outward.

Finishing
Stroke the tines to adjust the shape of the chasen.

Origin

The name chasen, or 茶筅 in Chinese characters, comes from sasara (筅), a tool to clean a burnt pan. The chasen made in Takayama has been elevated to the realm of art and is usually represented by a pair of Chinese characters including "筌" instead of "筅."

Chasentoshi

Chasentoshi refers to a series of movements where hot or cold water is poured in a tea bowl, and the bristles of chasen are swayed in it and moved in and out of it, before and after making the tea. Hot water is always used before making the tea so that a tea bowl can be warmed and bristles plunged in hot water can be softened and improved in elasticity. Chasentoshi after making the tea, on the other hand, is intended to rise a tea bowl and chasen at the same time in either hot or cold water. Chsentoshi before and after making the tea is thus sometimes called "chasentoji" (preparing a tea whisk) and "chasensusugi" (washing a tea whisk), respectively, for differentiation. The chasen is moved up and down for the purpose of checking the bristles up close for broken tips and dirt. It is a tradition to make small sounds when shifting the chasen from one hand to the other, putting it on the rim of the tea bowl, while moving it upward and downward repeatedly. This custom is said to have originated from the Shingon Esoteric Buddhism's rite of water-pouring and to have the meaning of purification.

Chasen kuyo (memorial service for used chasen)

The chasen, among other tea utensils, cannot be replaced by anything, and making this artifact requires the best craftsmanship and all one's energy. It is, however, naturally an expendable item because of its usage, and might well be used once then disposed of. Even if used with the utmost care, it would have broken bristles after being used a couple dozens of times. Therefore, masters of tea ceremony customarily feed the used chasen to the flames to show their gratitude, and this service is called chasen kuyo in the same manner as hari kuyo (memorial service for dull and broken needles) and fude kuyo (memorial service for used brushes). Although the mound for used chasen, built for this service, is found throughout the country today, making the mound is thought to be a relatively new custom that became widespread from the Taisho to Showa periods.

Derivative word

Chasen mage (chasen-shaped topknot) - a hair style where one's backside hair is tied into a short ponytail on the top of the head. The topknot has a similar shape to chasen.