When you want to make your matcha in the traditional Japanese style, it's essential to invest in a proper Japanese tea set. A basic tea set will include a chawan (matcha tea bowl), chasen (matcha bamboo whisk), and chashaku (matcha scoop). However, if you want a complete Japanese tea set, you should also get a furui (tea sift) and a kusenaoshi (chasen holder). By the way, this is if you want to enjoy matcha at home, casually. If you're going to make matcha as per the ways of Chado, you need much more equipment. So, if you want to make a proper bowl of frothy green matcha, if nothing else, you should always have quality matcha tea powder and a chasen. So how do we take care of the matcha whisk to ensure its longevity for years of umami-rich tea bowls to come?
What Is A Chasen?
Chasen is the Japanese word for matcha bamboo whisk. Artisans make all traditional matcha whisks from bamboo. You may have noticed that they vary in color — from a light ochre color to a reddish or dark brown one. This is because bamboo varies in color, so it simply depends on which piece of bamboo the master chooses.
Making a chasen is meticulous and demanding work. Every last whisk is hand-carved from a single piece of bamboo by the master. A standard chasen will have anywhere from 80 to 120 prongs, although this number can drop to as little as 16. Essentially, the type of chasen will always depend on these things:
- Tea school using the chasen (Japan has three official matcha tea schools, all of which have their own set of rules and even matcha tools)
- The type of matcha (Ceremonial versus everyday matcha)
- The kind of tea ceremony
For example, we use a standard chasen of 80 tines to whisk koicha (thick tea) as it doesn't require foam production. In comparison, one with 120 tines can whisk a very airy foam for usucha (thin tea).
Why Make Matcha With A Tea Whisk?
The reason why tea masters whisk matcha with a chasen is simple — it's the best way to break up the matcha powder, ensuring it dissolves in the water and we aren't left with any clumps. Furthermore, the foam we create by whisking the matcha adds a certain amount of sweetness and smoothness to the tea.
You can do a little experiment for yourself. In one bowl, whisk the matcha with a chasen until beautiful airy foam forms. In another bowl, whisk the matcha just until it dissolves — you can use a regular kitchen whisk for this or even shake up the matcha in a jar. Drinking the two side by side, you'll surely notice the sweetness that the foamy matcha acquired.
Lastly, tea masters stick to whisking matcha with a chasen because it is tradition. The Japanese tea ceremony has been passed on from generation to generation, with all its traditions, knowledge, techniques, and even tools. The original tea schools that were started following the teachings of Sen no Rikyu are still being run in Japan today by his bloodline. Furthermore, many people from across the world come to Japan to study under these tea schools. For many, following the original tea traditions is a form of honoring the matcha and Sen no Rikyu himself, and not just about tea aesthetic.
How Do Masters Make The Matcha Whisk?
To make a Japanese matcha bamboo whisk, masters follow these steps:
- The master peels and softens the bamboo shoot. Depending on the type of bamboo, the master may also boil the bamboo beforehand to remove excess dirt and prevent future discoloration. Generally, one bamboo shoot yields about 3-4 whisks.
- Using a steel knife, they carefully section the shoot into 12-24 parts.
- Then, they remove the inner flesh.
- Next, they further split the parts into smaller tines.
- The master scrapes, thins, and curls the tines.
- Finally, they bind the whisk with thread and perfect the shape.
Matcha bamboo whisk artisans also age certain types of bamboo for a few years before use.
Nowadays, most chasen are made in China. While they may not be as meticulously crafted, they still use quality bamboo and are perfect for making matcha. If you wish to buy a traditionally hand-made bamboo whisk, it's important to note they demand a relevant price to the amount of labor and skill involved — usually around $50. For those new to making matcha tea, we recommend investing in a basic chasen and practicing your way up to a traditional one made by a Japanese craftsman.
Types of Bamboo Used To Make A Matcha Tea Whisk
Believe it or not, there are around 100 different types of chasen that currently exist in Japan. All are made from different bamboo types and used for various purposes. Some of the most common ones are:
- Aodake: fresh green bamboo that's only available in December — tea masters use this chasen for new year tea ceremonies only. After, it loses its green color.
- Hachiku or Awatake: dried white bamboo, the Urasenke School uses this type of chasen.
- Susudake: artisans smoke this bamboo, which results in a dark ash color. The Omotesenke School uses this chasen. In the Omotosenke tradition, tea masters make matcha without producing foam. As difficult as it may seem to get nice and frothy matcha making matcha without foam is even more challenging! Chasen made from susudake bamboo aid in foamless matcha production.
- Shichiku or Kurochiku: purple or black bamboo that the Mushanokojisenke School uses. This unique chasen is green in the spring. Then it develops black spots throughout the autumn until it entirely turns black by winter. Using this type of chasen, tea masters can make an exceptionally foamy matcha tea.
Other Types of Bamboo Tea Whisks
- Shin-chasen: Shin means formal. Thus we use this type of matcha bamboo whisk for formal Chanoyu tea gatherings. The tines of this whisk form a bubble shape. By the way, the Urasenke School usually uses this tea whisk.
- Tenmoku Chasen: Made to use with the highly revered tenmoku Japanese tea cups. The Omotosenke School commonly uses tenmoku chawan in an offering tea ritual. This is when they make matcha to offer it to deities and ancestors. This type of chasen is also primarily made of the Susudake bamboo type — from smoked bamboo. Smoked bamboo, however, is quite rare in Japan, and it's much harder to carve. Thus it demands a pretty price.
- Chabako Chasen: Chabako means tea box. Indeed, this whisk is ideal to use with an outdoor tea set.
- Kotobuki Chasen: You may have noticed that traditionally chasen is bound with a black string. This one, on the other hand, is bound with a red and white string. These are auspicious colors used for special celebrations, like the welcoming of the new year.
Today, most chasen masters are in Nara Prefecture, Japan, with its bountiful bamboo forests.
Taking Care of The Green Tea Whisk
No matter the price point of your chasen, one thing is for sure — if you want it to last, you must take care of it. Taking care of a bamboo whisk is quite easy if you follow these steps:
- Soak it in warm water for a couple of minutes before each use. This softens the bristles, improves elasticity, and aids in producing smooth, foamy matcha. If it is your first time using your whisk, this step is crucial to get the twines to unfurl.
- Avoid scraping your bristles against the bottom of the chawan when whisking the matcha. This can easily damage or even break them. Instead, submerge the chasen slightly and whisk using swift "M" shaped motions. Remember — M for Matcha! Read more.
- When finished, soak it in clean, warm water for a few seconds and further rinse it clean. Under no circumstance should you use soap or detergent when washing the whisk. Some warm water will always suffice. Forgetting to rinse your whisk might lead to the development of mold.
- After cleaning, always leave the chasen to dry immediately. The best way to dry your chasen is upside down using a kusenaoshi (matcha whisk holder). However, if you don't have one, it's ok to leave it right side up on its handle from time to time. Just try not to dry it this way too often, as it may lead to mold development on the inside of the whisk. If you live in a very humid or damp area, we recommend patting the whisk dry with a tea towel before leaving it to dry further. This will halt mold from developing.
Some Final Notes
Remember, bamboo is an organic material. Thus, some things like mold are inevitable if we neglect to take proper care of our chasen.
Note: make sure never to store your tea whisk in the plastic tube it came in. We don't want our whisk going back into that shape after opening. It's in our best interest to keep the twines unfurled.
A newly purchased chasen before and after unfurling.
When Should I Get A New Green Tea Bamboo Whisk?
This will largely depend on how often you make matcha and whether you properly care for your chasen. For example, with proper care and consistent matcha tea ceremonies, your chasen should last you about two years. However, if you rarely drink matcha, it can last longer than that, too. If your chasen is beginning to thin or break, or if you notice it doesn't whisk matcha as well as it used to — it's time to get a new bamboo whisk.
How To Make Matcha Tea Without Whisk
Sometimes you may find yourself without a matcha whisk. For example, when on short trips, it's easier not to bring your chasen than risk it getting damaged. But what if you still want your daily dose of matcha? No problem, there are still some last-resort things you can do:
- Shake your matcha in a jar or water bottle. Make sure the lid is tight and shake vigorously until you see that all of the powder dissolved.
- Use a milk frother. Some people opt for using an electric milk frother. It does the trick but should not be an overall replacement for the whisk. Plus, it can't produce as airy foam as the bamboo whisk does.