The Four Types of Kyusu: Part II

Ceramic Atode no Kyusu

Atode no Kyusu with rear handle.

In Part I, we talked about two of the most common type of Japanese kyusu, or teapot. Kyusu have evolved over many centuries to best suit the needs of the diverse range of Japanese green teas. The two kyusu we introduced last week – yokode kyusu and houhin – trace their origins back to Chinese teapots adopted by the Japanese in the mid-Edo period. The other main types of kyusu, atode and uwade, are likewise the result of years of adaptation and evolution.

Atode no Kyusu

Just like the yokode kyusu, the word “atode” (後手の急須), meaning “on the back”, refers to this teapot’s structural design. Modeled to resemble western-style teapots, this teapot is especially suitable for Chinese and western-style black teas with a high water temperature and longer steep time.

Decorative Uwade Kyusu

Uwade Kysu or Dobin

Uwade Kyusu

“Uwade” (上手の急須), which translates to “on the top”, is also known as a dobin (土瓶) in Japanese tea ceremony terminology. Shaped like a western tea kettle with a long, curving handle over the top of the pot, uwade kyusu are larger than any other type of kyusu and intended for serving many guests at once. The placement of the handle is designed to accommodate the heavy main body of the pot, which would be difficult to pour with a side or back handle. When these teapots are made of cast iron and intended to be hung over the hearth, they are called tetsubin (鉄瓶).

Kyusu can be a fun way to experience Japanese culture and traditional tea preparation. If you are a fan of Japanese green teas, why not experiment with a kyusu of your own?

By: Jennifer Coate

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The Four Types of Kyusu: Part I

We’ve written before about the kyusu before – a small, traditional Japanese teapot perfectly designed for brewing up sencha, konacha, gyokuro, and many other types of green tea. Kyusu have been around for centuries, having evolved from the Chinese Yixing teapot when Buddhist monks first brought tea into the country during the early Heian Period (794-1185 C.E.). As Japanese tea is hugely diverse in style and steeping requirements, the form of the kyusu has changed and adapted over time into several different subtypes: yokode kyusu, ushirode kyusu, uwade kyusu, or houhin. Although there may be some variation in the appearance of the kyusu depending on artisan or manufacturer, the word kyusu itself is still an umbrella term for any Japanese teapot of these four basic shapes. In this post, we’ll explore two of the most frequently seen kyusu in Japan: yokode and houhin.

Yokode no Kyusu

The simplicity of the Japanese Tea Ceremony has inspired other accessories.

Japanese Yokode Kyusu

Yokode kyusu are the most common type of kyusu used in Japanese tea preparation. Its name reflects its appearance – “yokode” (横手の急須), meaning “on the side”, refers to the large, conical handle protruding from the right-hand side of the pot. This design allows the tea to be poured quickly and easily from a kneeling position, and is especially efficient when pouring small amounts into multiple cups. Yokode kyusu are suitable for most types of Japanese green teas, especially sencha. In fact, it was the rising popularity of sencha in the mid-Edo period (1603-1868 C.E.), that brought about a need for teaware specifically for brewing leaf, rather than powdered tea. Inspired by the leaf teas currently popular with Chinese Ming dynasty officials, early yokode kyusu were likely modeled after China’s purple clay Yixing teapots.

Houhin

Japanese Teapot with No Handles

Houhin ‘Treasure Chest’ Kyusu

Houhin (宝瓶), meaning “treasure chest”, is a small kyusu with a wide spout and no handle. It is usually used for steeping gyokuro and high-grade sencha, like shincha, as its shape and size allow for very quick, highly controlled steeping and pour times. Although these kyusu do not have handles, the low temperature at which these teas are steeped means that the pourer does not have to worry about burning their hands. Like yokode kyusu, houhin usage began in earnest during the mid-Edo period, as tea merchant and monk Baisao began to promote and popularize sencha and other whole leaf tea traditions. The houhin vessels we see today are likely a modified offshoot of the Chinese gaiwan. This is the type of kyusu that we here at Dominion Tea prefer to use when steeping our gyokuro, konacha, and shincha, as the fine filter and rapid pour allow us to brew these teas perfectly every time.

In our next post, we’ll take a look at the two other types of Japanese kyusu: atode and uwade kyusu.

By: Jennifer Coate

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Shincha – 1st Flush Sencha

Shincha -- a first flush sencha.

First Flush Shincha

Within the world of Japanese teas, sencha and shincha are two terms that can easily be confused, especially by English speakers. But while sencha is a broad category of popular Japanese green tea, shincha refers to a specific harvest of sencha that is highly prized among tea connoisseurs.

Sencha, with its vast array of varieties, has long held sway over the Japanese tea market, accounting for more than 80 percent of the country’s overall tea consumption. Production styles vary tremendously depending on region and desired quality. Highest-graded sencha is typically harvested and processed from late April to mid-May. Like all Japanese teas, sencha is steamed shortly after picking to dehydrate the leaves and forestall oxidation, giving it a characteristic vegetal and grassy freshness.

When cultivating sencha, Japanese tea growers divide the growing year into four harvests – referred to in the industry as flushes – named for their order in the year: ichibancha, nibancha, sanbancha, and yonbancha. The first flush, ichibancha, is what produces shincha. Delicate buds and top leaves, harvested by hand and briefly steamed, are plucked when they are still small. By plucking these leaves early, growers capture the intense expression of the all the rich nutrients and flavors that have been cultivating in the soil during the plant’s winter dormancy.

Bright green infused liquor from shincha.

Shincha Fresh from a Kyusu

Shincha leaves are small, tender, and vibrant, with a scent that is both freshly herbaceous and faintly mineral in character. When infused, shincha leaf steeps into a smooth paste yielding a bright green-gold liquor. The flavor, as compared to standard sencha, is notably bolder, livelier, and complex. A strong oceanic minerality overlays undernotes of fresh vegetation, with a faintly bitter finish that gradually gives way to a lingering stonefruit sweetness. The mouthfeel is full and sharp, slightly less astringent than sencha but still decidedly pronounced.

Like other Japanese green teas, shincha is perfect for brewing in traditional kyusu, but is just as delightful steeped in a pot or an infuser. Steep three grams of tea at a low temperature, between 160°-185° Fahrenheit, for two to three minutes. Shincha can also be enjoyed for multiple short steepings.

By Jennifer Coate

 

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Alishan High Mountain Oolongs

View from Dabang Village Alishan Taiwan

Sunrise in Dabang Village, Alishan National Forest

Alishan Oolongs put Taiwan’s tea industry on the map in the 1960’s & 70’s as the country struggled to compete with China for tea consumers. These famous oolongs are produced in the south central region of Taiwan by the many aboriginal tribes of Taiwan living in the large conservation district of Taiwan called Alishan National Forest.

What sets these oolongs apart is their complex, clean flavors. This is credited to both the perfect growing conditions in the region as well as the laborious process of hand picking, properly balling the oolong, and a combination of roasting and aging after processing.

Growing Conditions
One of the largest spiders on the planet found in large parts of Asia

Giant Golden Orb Web Weaver or Giant Wood Spider

Up at 3,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level, the tea plants get plenty of morning fog that generally burns off by the afternoon. These warm misty conditions are what tea plants want. Given the ocean air, clouds can roll in and out all day long and small afternoon rain showers are normal during certain times of the year. Taiwan is bisected by the Tropic of Cancer, so it is close enough to the Equator to stay warm year round, but the high elevations do allow the plants to go dormant period during winter.

Beyond the weather, having tea grown without insecticide or fertilizer adds to the complexity of the flavor as the plants have to fight off bugs and pull nutrients naturally from the soil. The soil is amended with grasses and other plants to return nutrients to the soil each dormant period. The best Alishan oolongs are produced without insecticide leaving nature to do its job. In those fields that means a home to the giant golden orb weaver, one of the largest spiders in the world. Not poisonous, they are still an interesting obstacle to getting to the tea leaves for those who are not fans of arachnids. These spiders appear in abundance! However these amazing creatures ensure that the insects don’t get to eat all the leaves. So for the serious tea drinker, they are a welcome site on a tea field.

Processing

Getting plucking correct is actually one of the trickiest parts in Taiwan. With very few people willing to pluck, the experienced plucking teams are in high demand. So trying to time plucking is hard for the smaller growers. Ideally, the tea is plucked late in the day and into the evening after the fog has left and the leaves have dried off. Once plucked, the leaves need to whither at least 24 hours while the tea master determines what type of oolong to make. This is often done based off of how many leaves were plucked (bud and 2 to 4 leaves) and the length of the leaves. Generally, smaller leaves and bud are going to go a lighter oxidized oolong.

Tea fields growing up a mountainside.

One of many tea fields found throughout the high mountains of Alishan Taiwan.

The leaves will be agitated for the next 24 hours in tumblers and rolling machines as the tea master samples to find the right flavor. It is then roasted/dried to stop the oxidation at the desired flavor. The tea is then put into air tight storage. While it can be drunk, the tea master prefers that it sit and a final finishing roast be applied a few months later. It is said that this resting time is the key to getting the complex flavors in the tea. The applied roasting can add its own complexities with woody and smokey notes.

Drinking

There are many types of Alishan Oolongs to choose from, from a lightly oxidized and roasted Alishan High Mountain to a more heavily oxidized Alishan Red Oolong. For those who are fans of Lapsang Souchong, there is even a Dark Roasted Alishan that has a smokiness and sweetness to rival this well known tea.

Alishan Oolongs should be steeped at cooler temperatures, between 185-200° F for 3-5 minutes (western style steeping). Multiple steepings are a must for this tea as the flavor will change over the steepings.

The balled nature of this tea lends itself to the use of a gaiwan or yixing tea pot. As the tea unfolds, small particulate falls out adding to the creamy mouthfeel. Go grab your gaiwan or yixing and fill it 1/3 to 1/2 full and do your first steeping at 45 seconds and work up in 15-30 second increments. Smell those leaves as you go, the aroma is mind blowing.

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Japanese Tea Ceremony History and Meaning

Matcha with treats!

Appreciating tea comes in many forms and one of the oldest forms is the Japanese Tea Ceremony. This ceremony has a rich history that encompasses not only enjoying matcha but setting up an environment to connect with ones’ guests over tea. What is often interpreted as strict and formal by Western cultural standards is actually a much broader examination of how the environment you are in will effect your ability to appreciate the tea and connect with your guests.

History of the Japanese Tea Ceremony

As we mentioned in our blog post on the History of Matcha, tea made its way into Japan some 400 years before the creation of the tea ceremony via the Zen Buddhist Monks and their cultural exchange with China. The creation of the tea ceremony came during the period of the first samurai and shogun in Japan (1192-1333 C.E.). The Zen Buddhist Monks would prepare matcha for each other and themselves before sitting for long periods of meditation. This practice continued and would be shared with the royal court in Japan for many centuries before being adopted formally by the royal court under the reign of Toyotomi Hideyosi (1585-1598 C.E.).  It was also during this time that the ceremony and its steps where formally documented by the Zen Buddhist monk Sen Rikyu.

Japanese Tea Ceremony: Attention to Detail and Environment

The Buddhist Monks that developed the tea ceremony paid a lot of attention to the environment around them as they drank the tea and shared it with their colleagues and friends. The environment was to be pleasant but not over stimulating. So artwork was carefully chosen and only a few pieces hung.  A small but carefully chosen flower arrangement was often included on the table with the tea utensils. The bamboo mats and cushions for guests where to provide protection from the cold floor so they could concentrate more easily on each other and the tea. The tea bowl and utensils where also chosen to fit with the artwork. The goal was to have everything fit together to provide a peaceful environment that would allow everyone to enjoy each other and the tea. What is often lost to Western cultural is that after consuming the tea, the host and guests would often discuss the artwork, practice calligraphy together, and spend time discussion intellectual pursuits.

Japanese Tea Ceremony: Modern Day

The practice of the Japanese Tea Ceremony continues around the world. There are schools, in Washington, DC it is the Chado Urasenke Tankokai Association, that not only teach the preparation of the matcha but include how to do the ancient calligraphy, flower arrangements and play traditional Japanese instruments. So broaden your horizons by taking a class and learning more about this part of Japanese culture.

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