japanese teapots - what to use when you brew

As with any good thing in life, the answer is "It Depends"

So your order of green tea just arrived from Japan  and you're super excited. Good, you ought to be, those leaves aren't going to brew themselves and they hold some wicked awesome umami within. Better grab that teapot.

But Wait!

Didn't the website show some kind of odd teapot with a sideways handle? Wasn't there a metal filter surrounding the interior of the pot? 

The answer is mostly likely yes. So before you go grabbing grandmas' big'ol teapot, caked with Earl Gray stains, let's look at what innovations the Japanese have developed over the years to suit their teas.


Japan has several teapots used for brewing tea. Below is an overview of what they are and what teas should be used in them. By all means, tea can be brewed in any vessel, but the nature of the tea can make things rather tricky.

The Kyusu (急須)

A handcrafted kyusu (top right) and accompanying cups for sale in Arashiyama, Kyoto, 2013.

A handcrafted kyusu (top right) and accompanying cups for sale in Arashiyama, Kyoto, 2013.

The Japanese teapot. While many will conjure an image of a teapot with a perpendicular handle, known as a Yokode Kyusu (横手急須), there are others! A teapot with a handle at the rear (parallel to the spout) is called an Ushirode Kyusu (後手急須). A teapot with the handle on top is called an Uwade Kyusu (上手急須).

When it comes to pouring with a Kyusu, it's all in the wrist. Ease of use comes from the side-handle (Yokode) Kyusu. Try it out! Your wrist will thank you.

The choice to use a Kyusu is dependent on  two things:

  • the type of tea you want to brew
  • the amount of tea you are going to use

Often Kyusu are larger (compared to other Japanese brewing utensils) and therefore are a great choice when you have more than 4 people to serve for delicate teas (Sencha, Gyokuro) or for when you are brewing in larger cups for stronger teas (Bancha, Houjicha).

Be very aware of the filter on the Kyusu. This plays an important role in dictating what tea you should brew in the vessel. If you are brewing a Fukamushi style tea (deep steamed tea, often with fine and small tea particles), such as a Gyokuro or Sencha from Shizuoka, you are best to use a Sasame Filter (originally designed in Tokoname). These come in wire-mesh filters and, if you have a clay pot, it may have been made right into the clay.

A fine mesh filter prevents the leaves, both large and small, from passing threw into your cup.

A fine mesh filter prevents the leaves, both large and small, from passing threw into your cup.

Direct and Bulbous filters are common in clay pots, being built right into the Kyusu itself. While the drainage of the tea is better with these pots (large holes are not as easily blocked, as is common with small holed Sasame filters) a Fukamushi will have leaves pass right into your cup.

I have two Kyusu, a vibrant Tokoname and a earthen Bizen. They hold 473ml (2cups) and 315ml (1.33cups) respectively. True to it's name, the Tokoname has a Sasame mesh and the Bizen, in an interesting twist, holds a removable filter. Albeit larger in screen size than the Sasame.


Here is a handy guide for filter sizes:

Sasame

  • Any Fukamushi or small particle sized teas

Bulbous, Direct, Large Mesh

  • Asamushi (light steamed tea)
  • Chuumushi (medium steamed tea)
  • Bancha
  • Japanese oolong or black teas 

The Shiboridashi (搾り出し)

In stark contrast to the Kyusu, the Shiboridashi has no handle or filter.....kind of. It is actually very similar to a Gaiwan. The most notable difference is the spout along the rim. Which for those unskilled in handling a Gaiwan is a lifesaver.

Notice the "rake" filter coming down from the spout. It's surprisingly effective.

Notice the "rake" filter coming down from the spout. It's surprisingly effective.

It is not uncommon for Shiboridashi to have a "rake" filter inlaid in the clay. This helps to hold back any leaves within the vessel. Of course this does little to stop fine particles, again coming from Fukamushi style teas.

Use a Shiboridashi if you are brewing the following:

Senchas and Gyokuros that are either

  • Asamushi (light steamed tea)
  • Chuumushi (medium steamed tea)

(Larger teas, such as Banchas, are simply too large to fit within the average Shiboridashi, especially once they expand. Best to stick with a Kyusu here)

Feel free to use them for individual servings or  events with less than 4 people. My Shiboridashi holds 177ml (6oz). Oh! Be cautious of the temperature of the water, the Shiboridashi, having no handle, can easily burn your hand. But if you are brewing your Senchas and Gyokuros properly (50C - 70C/122F-158F) then this should not be an issue.


The Houhin (宝瓶)

First off, yes I am aware of the "-hin vs. -bin" debate. However I am defaulting to my time in Japan and using the -hin pronunciation.

The Houhin was my first Japanese brewing vessel and I am a large fan. Similar in design to the Shiboridashi, it has the added feature of a built in filter. Typically these filters are direct filters, meaing it is simply holes punched through the clay wall that serve to filter the tea from the leaves. Depending on how large the holes are one can be tempted to brew a Fukamushi style tea in it. But it's best to test out your Houhin first. Better to be safe than sorry.

I bought this very set during the sale in Arashiyama in 2013. Worth every yen.

I bought this very set during the sale in Arashiyama in 2013. Worth every yen.

Be aware, as with a Sasame filter, that the leaves may block the filter when they become infused and expand. This can lead to tea spilling out from where the lid and rim connect. You don't want to burn your hand!

Use a Houhin if you are brewing a Sencha or Gyokuro that is:

  •  Asamushi (light steamed tea)
  •  Chuumushi (medium steamed tea)
  •  Fukamushi (deep steamed tea)

Similar to the Shiboridashi, larger leafed teas are simply too large for the average Houhin. By all means try brewing a Bancha in your Houhin. Don't let some guy's blog on the internet stop you. 

For a break down, my Houhin holds 266ml (9oz). This makes it perfect for brewing individual servings of strong umami tastes and marine/veggie flavoured teas. Having a mug of Gyokuro to yourself doesn't often end well. Moderation in all things!

Brew away my friends, and brew smart! And as always, keep your cups warm!