Traditional Culture of Japan - Traditional crafts and culture

Cha’ire and natsume: understanding tea ceremony utensils


In a tea ceremony, one drinks matcha, but there are two kinds of matcha. One is thicker in consistency (koicha) while the other is more liquid (usucha). Matcha comes in powdered form, but two types of powdered matcha are differentiated. One is used for koicha, while the other is used for usucha.


There are containers for storing each of these types of matcha tea. A tea caddy in which koicha is stored is called a cha’ire, while a tea caddy for usucha is called a natsume.


  ・Left: cha’ire    Right: natsume


  The cha’ire, a highly regarded utensil
Among the various kinds of tea ceremony utensils, the cha’ire is recognized as the most expensive. There is some history behind that.


During the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1603) Japan was constantly ravaged by wars in many parts of the country. This is why this period is also known as the Warring States period. A prominent figure of this period was Hideyoshi Toyoyomi, the leader who unified Japan.


Hideyoshi would reward those who distinguished themselves in his service. He gave land taken from vanquished opponents to those who achieved success fighting in his name.


However, there was a limit to the amount of land available for Hideyoshi to give as a reward. And when there was not enough land, he had the idea of rewarding his people with tea ceremony utensils.


In those times, tea ceremony was popular among samurai. Some of the tea ceremony utensils were very expensive. Hideyoshi decided to give the cha’ire used in tea ceremonies as a reward to those who did not receive a plot of land.


In other words, cha’ire were treated as if they had the same value as a state. There are some cha’ire that are worth hundreds of millions of yen. That is because these cha’ire were objects that were worth as much as a plot of land.


This custom of giving a cha’ire instead of a plot of land continued for a long time. This is why, even today, the most highly regarded tea ceremony utensils are Karamono cha’ire (expensive cha’ire made in China).


There is nothing else like a cha’ire in the whole world. If something bad happens, you can't just give your land to someone to take it away somewhere safe, but if you have a cha’ire, you can give it to your wife and children to take with them when they make their escape.


Moreover, if somebody had a famous cha’ire, he was known in the surrounding regions. If he had to flee to another territory, the cha’ire would serve as proof of his identity. By understanding its significance, we can understand how valuable a cha’ire was for people in those times.


  The natsume, a tea caddy for usucha
Unlike the cha’ire, which is used to store koicha, the natsume is a tea ceremony utensil used to store usucha. In shape, it resembles the fruit of a jujube plant (called “natsume” in Japanese), hence its name.


An “usucha-ki” is a utensil used to store usucha. For this reason, the term “natsume” is used generically to refer to “usucha-ki.”


Most cha’ire are chinaware of a dark brown color, whereas natsume are almost always lacquer ware. Originally, natsume were plain black utensils of a simple design. They became gradually extravagant items, decorated with gold and other precious materials. Nowadays, natsume come in a variety of shapes.

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