Last spring, we visited our Japanese tea growers. On a beautiful day in March, we set out to meet a master chasen maker (special whisks used for matcha tea) in the Kyoto region. Thanks to the help of a volunteer guide who spoke excellent English, we were able to make contact with this artisan, whose reputation we knew of and whose family has been making chasens for generations. Ikukosan, our guide, agreed to accompany us to Takayama to visit this master.

Chasen1After a brief ride in a commuter train, we took a taxi upon leaving the train station. Our driver (wearing white gloves, as is the custom in Japan) was an old man who was familiar with the area and told us about the development of the chasen industry, competition from chasens of poor quality from China and Korea and how difficult it was for bamboo growers and chasen makers to earn a living in 21st century Japan. On our way, we saw bamboo plantations and pyramid-shaped piles of bamboo drying in the sun next to artisans’ workshops. The bamboo stalks used to make chasens are cut in the winter (January and February), plunged into boiling water to remove the oil, dried out of doors for two or three months, then stored for two to three years It is during the storage period that the stalks are examined and some are rejected because they are of insufficient quality to make good chasens. Today, much of the competition in this industry stems from poor quality bamboo from China that is made into chasens immediately after it is cut. This is why the chasens are less expensive, but also crack very quickly.Chasen7

Shortly after, we arrived at Keise Kubo’s home. Since Keise-San was in Tokyo on business, we were visiting with Mrs. Kubo and her son, Kyousuke. Although only the father is recognized as a master artisan, the son (in his mid-thirties) is obviously very skilled and has been making chasens for already 20 years. The title is only given with age in Japan, so he will have to wait to be called a master. Kyousuke and his mother ushered us into their tiny living room, which they also use as a workshop, next to the garden and a little entrance used as a shop. Kneeling on cushions, we’re first offered tea (of course!), a matcha followed by a delicious gyokuro. Mrs. Kubo explained that they usually work late and get up late, so our arrival so early in the morning (around 9:30 a.m.) caught them by surprise. They were extremely nice and we tried as best we could to appropriately respond to their gracious ministrations. As we sipped our tea (and enjoying some treats, as is tradition), we exchanged pleasantries and more clearly explained the purpose of our visit.

Chasen2Our time with them was enchanting from beginning to end. They answered all of our questions and explained quite clearly. Thankfully, Ikukosan is an excellent interpreter and is also very interested in how chasens are made and how chasen masters work. Kyousube grabbed his tools and a piece of bamboo and gave us a demonstration on chasen making.

He was fascinating to watch, not only because of his skill, precise movements and the fragility of the bamboo at each step of the process, but also by the incredible simplicity of the art that turns an ordinary piece of bamboo into a complex object using only one’s hands and a series of small blades. As we mentioned earlier, the bamboo stalks are cut, plunged into water to remove the oil, dried during the winter and then stored for two years. They are then cut into pieces and only 3 or 4 can be used. Kyousube began working with a six inch piece of stalk with a knot tied around the upper section.Chasen6