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Chanoyu : The Way of Tea

Before we can begin to discuss the tetsubin we must understand the concept of chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony.  The tea culture of China focuses more on the quality of tea leaves, while that in Japan is centered around the procedures and philosophy of the tea ceremony. In chanoyu every tiny detail, from utensil to atmosphere, is important to create an environment that not only satisfies the taste buds, but also produces a sense of inner peace. Therefore chanoyu, which is loosely translated as "tea ceremony," is more appropriately thought of as the "way of Tea" (chado). Within this context we can begin to understand the importance of tea utensils within the Japanese tea ceremony. The tea utensil is more than just an appliance with which to drink, serve or boil tea, it symbolizes the status and devotion of a particular host.

"A tea utensil exists as the realization of a tea devotee’s aspirations regarding chanoyu. At the same time, it constitutes a material asset. Hence, discussion of tea utensils ultimately relates to the esthetic and material assets of individual tea devotees. In the majority of works pertaining to chanoyu published during the Edo period (1600-1868), as well as during the Meiji era (1868-1912), the subject of tea utensils was taken up from the general standpoint that, as objects which represented a person’s taste (konomi), they added the crowning touch to a tea devotee’s name." (Jun’ichi, p. 7) The number and types of utensils used in a modern-day Japanese tea ceremony depend upon the actual ceremony and the preferences of the chanoyu practitioners, but overall the list is long. Although each utensil plays an unique role and each deserves special attention, here we pay special interest to only the tetsubin.

The first step in preparing tea is to boil the water. Because the tetsubin is designed to heat water and is shaped like a typical teapot, one might logically expect that it would play a significant part in chanoyu, but such is not the case. In fact, the tetsubin is not even widely used to heat water. For that task, most tea practitioners prefer the cha-gama or ortegama, an iron kettle with neither a spout nor a handle. Where, then does the tetsubin fit in and why was it created? Answers to these questions may be found in the history of the tetsubin.

The History of the Tetsubin

Exactly when the tetsubin first appeared in Japan is unclear, but much evidence suggests a close relationship with the rise of the sencha, a form of tea-drinking that uses tea leaves instead of powdered tea. Sencha was introduced to Japan from China around the middle of the 17th century, a period when Japan's literati were greatly influenced by China as well as by Neo-Confucian thought. Sencha was not considered a formal ceremony but introduced tea as a drink that was closely associated with medicinal herbs. Most literati adopted sencha drinking as a symbolic revolt against the formality of chanoyu, favored by the ruling class.

During the 18th century, as more and more ordinary townspeople throughout Japan adopted tea drinking, sencha gradually became an informal setting for sharing a cup of tea with friends and family. For most Japanese citizenry, however, the Chinese tea utensils used in sencha remained too rare and expensive. Thus a market developed for a new Japanese style teapot to replace the expensive Chinese styles. That need was filled with the creation of the tetsubin.

Most likely the tetsubin was not created from imagination, but shaped by the design of other Japanese water kettles already in use. P.L.W. Arts in his book Tetsubin: A Japanese water kettle, calls these influential Japanese water kettles “forerunners” of the Tetsubin. He recognizes five such forerunners: tedorikama, sake warmers (toyama), mizusosogi, dobin and the yakkan.  The yakkan is probably the closest relative to the tetsubin, its principal difference being that it is made of copper. But why develop the tetsubin when a perfectly usable vessel, like the yakkan, was already in existence? One explanation might be the common belief by many tea enthusiasts that water boiled in an iron kettle tastes better than water boiled in any other material. Another interesting characteristic about the tetsubin is that the side with ornamentation is normally the one with the spout facing to the right.  This is because in sencha the tetsubin is held in the right hand, whereas in chanoyu, it is held in the left hand. The yakkan is also used in the right hand which is a further indication that the yakkan is probably the closest relative to the tetsubin.

Throughout the 18th Century, the tetsubin became an ordinary household utensil used to heat water, prepare tea, and even create warmth. At the same time, however, it underwent ornamental design changes, as did Japanese art in general. By the early 19th Century, tetsubin designs ranged from very simple to elaborate. The more intricately designed tetsubin commanded the highest prices. The design or style of a tetsubin reflected the class or desired class of its owner, and thus came to be a symbol of status. According to Arts, a water kettle could be classed as a kitchen kettle, rural kettle, standard kettle, or an ornamental kettle. Despite their use among the common people, elaborate tetsubin were still regarded as art pieces. Most of the tetsubin in the Rietz Collection at the California Academy of Sciences could be categorized as standard kettles.

Tetsubin within Chanoyu

Although the tetsubin was originally influenced by sencha drinking and is still considered more of a household item, it has a small but important role within the tea ceremony. Of the several occasions when it is used in chanoyu, perhaps the most significant is ryakubon. The very first ceremonial setting a host learns, ryakubon is relatively simple and requires minimum equipment, including the tetsubin to heat the water for preparing the tea. The tetsubin is also often used in place of the cha-gama when chanoyu is held outdoors. This is because the tetsubin is relatively small, can be carried, and has a spout. The water from a cha-gama cannot be poured but must be ladled with a hishaku. Another ceremony that uses tetsubin, is kaiseki, which is actually a light meal served to guests before chanoyu.

Despite the fact that the tetsubin play a relatively small role within chanoyu they are charming and interesting pieces in themselves. The decoration and shapes of the tetsubin are beautiful in their simplicity. Not only are they visually pleasing, but they also represent an aspect of Japanese culture that captures the spirit of the moment shared by fellow companions when drinking tea. Tea enthusiasts today can enjoy tea in the comfort of their home thanks to the easy-to-use tetsubin.

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