If you want your sencha to be sensational, your matcha to be marvelous, and your bancha to be beautiful, you’ll need a Japanese tea set. But with so many materials, designs, and sizes to choose from, finding the perfect Japanese tea set for you can feel a little daunting. That’s why we’ve put together this guide to Japanese tea sets, explaining the different options and how to use them to enjoy your favorite Japanese green teas.
A Brief History of Japanese Tea
Like the black, yellow and oolong teas from China, India, Kenya and beyond, tea in Japan is made from the Camellia sinensis plant – or tea shrub. Unlike the others, Japan only produces green teas, that is, tea made from leaves that have been heated to stop the oxidation process and halt fermentation.
That’s because green tea is the original form of tea first brewed in China in the time of the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung, some 4,800 years ago. The emperor is said to have been boiling water for herbs when the wind blew some tea leaves into his pot. He drank the infusion, enjoyed the earthy taste, and thus tea was invented.
By the time of Confucious in 500 BC, Chinese society had already developed elaborate tea ceremonies. Buddhist monks later brought the drink to Japan in around 600 AD, but it wasn’t until the early 800s, when priests and envoys visited China to learn more about its culture and returned with tea seeds, that tea became popular within the religious and upper classes of Japanese society. Fermented teas like black tea weren’t developed until much later (black tea emerged sometime in the 1600s), so the only form of tea that existed at the time was green tea. Consequently, Japanese teas are always green teas, and it remains the most popular form of tea in Japan to this day.
There are four types of green teas, which differ from each other in their method of drying the leaves after picking. Popular in China are varieties in which the leaves are wok-fried, sun-dried, or baked. In Japan, the preferred method is Zheng Qing, in which the leaves are steamed to kill the enzymes within. The result is a light, gentle, almost vegetable flavor profile.
The Japanese Tea Ceremony
The Japanese sadō, or “way of tea” is a time-honored tradition rooted in the principles of Buddhism. The aim is to revere beauty within the daily routine of life; in this case, the welcoming of guests to the home.
The ceremony takes place within a cha-shitsu, or tea house – ideally a stand-alone structure, but more commonly within the main home – carefully designed to elicit an air of humility and simplicity. The ceremony starts when the host brings the tea utensils into the room, offers the guests some sweets, and prepares the tea. After the tea is drunk, guests are expected to enquire about the teaware, as well as holding conversation on enlightened topics. The ceremony ends when the host removes the teaware from the cha-shitsu.
Japanese teaware is so much more, therefore, than just a pot to brew tea in, or a mug to drink from. The materials, shapes, and even colors of the sets are designed to elevate the tea, and the drinker, through mindful contemplation of the whole experience.
The Four Shapes of Japanese Teapots
Yokode Kyusu: If you’ve researched Japanese teapots in the past, you may be familiar with side-handled pots, known as kyusu. In fact the word ‘kyusu’ simply means ‘teapot’, but has come to be used colloquially for those with the handles placed to the side, at a 90 degree angle from the spout. Placing the handle here means the lid can be kept in place with the thumb while pouring.
Ushirode Kyusu: Originally a Chinese design, ushirode kyusu look the most familiar to Western eyes as the handle is at the back of the pot, the same as English or Chinese teapots. In Japan, they are typically used for serving English or Chinese teas.
Dobin: The handle on a dobin is looped over the top of the teapot in an elegant fashion, and is made from a different material to the pot itself. This benefits the pourer, as the handle doesn’t heat up with the rest of the pot. Dobin are typically larger than other kyusu, and are used to serve guests. The handles are usually made from bamboo, but can also be rattan, or even plastic.
Hohin: At the other end of the scale is the hohin, or handle-less teapot. These are used for teas that require cooler temperatures, as the pot itself is held in the hand to pour.
Japanese homes may well have more than one teapot, to be used at different times and for different teas. Want a soothing cup of gyokuro by yourself during a moment of rest? You might want to use your hohin teapot, whereas if you’re brewing a pot for the whole family to enjoy after dinner, the dobin is the pot to use.
Materials Used to Make Japanese Teaware
Clay and porcelain are the most popular materials for making teapots in Japan, where there is a long tradition of manufacture by highly skilled potters dating back centuries. In the 19th century, cast iron pots also gained popularity in Japan. Which you choose is largely down to the look you prefer for your teaware – and there’s a large range of colors and patterns to choose from – but tea aficionados do say that the material used can affect the taste and sensual enjoyment of the tea.
Clay pots: Clay teapots have been made in Japan for well over a thousand years. Some of the most accomplished potters working today hail from ancient artisanal families, in which the skills to make beautiful pots passed on from generation to generation.
Clay is a porous material; consequently the tea interacts with the pot at a molecular level as it brews in the pot. For this reason, clay pots can subtly affect the taste of teas brewed within them. Iron, for example, which gives the clay a red hue, is known to counter the astringency of green teas, tempering the sharp taste to make a slightly more mellow brew. The oxygen saturation during firing of the pot, and temperature at which it is fired also affect the final makeup of the pot, so no two teapots interact with the tea in exactly the same way.
The most highly prized Japanese clay pots are Banko-yaki, or Banko-ware, which is made in the region of Yokkaichi, Mie prefecture, and Tokoname-yaki or Tokoname-ware, which are made in and around Tokoname in the Aïchi prefecture. It’s no coincidence that both of these areas lie along the Japan Median Tectonic Line that runs through Japan, lending the clay soils in the area particularly high mineral levels.
Clay teapots temper over time, absorbing countless teas as they’re brewed within, lending a patina to the interior and also subtly altering the taste of subsequent teas as they’re brewed. If you have a clay teapot you particularly like, look after it over the years – it will serve you well.
Porcelain pots: In contrast to clay teapots, porcelain teapots are non-porous, so the pot and the tea do not interact. That makes porcelain teapots the perfect choice for sampling the true taste of a tea.
Porcelain, a Chinese invention initially, is made from a mixture of ground rock and white kaolin clay which is fired at very high temperatures. The result is a beautifully smooth, lustrous white material, sometimes translucent, which may be decorated by painting and glazing.
Tetsubin: An alternative to clay or porcelain teapots are tetsubin – cast iron teapots shaped like dobin with a handle looped over the top. These evolved from the cast iron pots used for heating water and brewing tea in Japanese homes; when tea-drinking gained popularity and social status in the 19th century, the pots became more ornate. Now status symbols in their own right, many tetsubin are minimalist and streamlined in now feature beautiful and highly intricate relief patterns.
Japanese teapots in general tend to be smaller than their western counterparts, holding only around 300 ml of water, but tetsubin, having their origins in kitchenware, are notably larger, holding between half a liter and five liters of water.
The prefectures most known for producing tetsubin in Japan are Iwate and Yamagata, toward the north of the country.
Japanese teacups, like teapots, come in a variety of shapes, colors and sizes, each of which have their benefits when used with various teas. Again, which you choose may simply come down to aesthetic preference – which set you like the look of best – but with so many options to choose from, it helps to know the strengths of each variety.
If buying a tea set, the cups will likely match the teapot, made from the same material and with the same colors and patterns. Clay teapots will have clay cups to match, while porcelain sets always look dainty. There is a third option, however: glass teacups are also a popular choice in Japan.
Clay, Porcelain or Glass Teacups?
Clay cups convey the Japanese aesthetic beautifully. They come in a wide range of colors, with blue being a popular choice. Unlike Western teacups, Japanese teacups don’t have handles; instead they look like small bowls, and are held cupped in the hand.
If you want to show off the bright greens of your sencha or matcha, porcelain cups with their smooth white edges are an excellent choice. Thin and lightweight, they are a pleasure to use.
Finally, glass is the perfect option for drinking iced teas on hot summer days.
Tapered, Straight, or Lidded?
As with materials, the shapes of Japanese teacups lend themselves well to various forms of tea-drinking.
Tapered cups flare out toward the rim of the cup, creating a larger surface area and a nice lip from which to drink. They are perfect for enjoying the aroma of the tea as well as the taste, and are well suited to green teas such as sencha and gyokuro
Straight-sided cups, by contrast, do not flare. This design gives the cup a taller appearance, but also helps to hold in the heat of the tea for longer, making them ideal for teas which require a higher steeping temperature, such as hojicha or genmaicha.
Lidded cups also hold the heat of the tea for longer, preventing the heat from escaping from the tea’s surface. However, the real function of the lids is decorative; these cups are mostly used to serve teas to guests, who may wish to admire the patterns and illustrations on the cups and teaware.