It all started with a Groupon purchase. After a trip to a Teavana retailer, a college friend suggested I check out a limited-time offer via the aforementioned discount site. They were offering Tetsubin tea pots. A few years ago I would’ve thought it too good to be true, but after considering the still growing popularity of online marketing, I figured “why not?” If I’m gonna take that gamble, I might as well take a good one. Fast forward to my first Tetsubin. A beautiful one indeed. Although I never considered, I still wondered about the authenticity of such a popular item. After all, my Tetsubin pot wasn’t a NEW thing.
Ironware, A tea-lover’s pride & joy
Cha no Yu: The Way of Tea
My first introduction to “loose-leaf” tea and related cast ironware was when a former professor invited a tea master to perform a Japanese Tea Ceremony. Technically she did not use tea leaves, but a powder grounded from tencha tea leaves called maccha (commonly spelled matcha). My classmates and I each took turns kneeling shoeless opposite the tea master to watch her perform the ceremony per serving. We each took a cup and a soft Japanese pastry candy. Speaking as one prone to put coffee in her creamer, this wasabi-colored green tea was hardy. The powder had a thick consistency and tasted earthy with an aftertaste, that in my opinion, had no comparison. But it went AMAZINGLY with sweets! To further my astonishment, I found out some time later that maccha is most popularly featured in Starbuck’s Green Tea Frappucchino. I KNEW it!
The Legacy of B.C. Superpowers
Seeing China come up in the origin stories across Asia’s overall history shouldn’t come as a surprise. ..It’s still a surprise.
A lot of world innovation stemmed from Ancient China: home décor and wooden furniture, stringed instruments, architecture, textiles—SUNGLASSES. The Tetsubin teapot was no exception. While Japan steadily manufactured the cheaper rice-tea concoction, sencha, the public still needed materials. Chinese imports and goods were hard to come by in Japan, so naturally people had to come up with a more immediate (affordable) way to accommodate the growing tea trend. So they made their own thing.
I’d like to think good timing worked in the Tetsubin’s favor. Nothing like timing and opportunity.
The 19th century was a time of innovation and what was known as the World’s Fair. The internet before the internet. If anybody wanted to see modern artifacts of thinkers, artisans and an all-around appreciation for beauty, tea sets from “The Orient” were all the rage. So, the Tetsubin pot started to get fancy. Symbols and styles started to cater to specific families that would then be worked into the pot as a beautiful aesthetic. A meaningful one too. My red, iron pot appears to have three symbols: Bamboo (a.k.a one of the Four Noble Ones –truths maybe?), Ginko leaf (memory & Energy) and Plum Blossom (Beauty, Strength & Willpower).Traditionally the Tetsubin pot was crafted by cast iron, and according to a teavana employee I spoke with, a single pot passed through 17 different sets of hands, requiring 40 steps to complete the process.
Apparently the same methods to hand-cast this pot are still used in Japan today by master artists.
** This section mainly focuses on the casting process used by the Iwachu manufacturer, however I found this to give interesting insight into the craft overall ^^.
As one also bombarded by ads, Rachael Ray hype, Buzzfeed and The Chew, I often wonder about the authenticity of HEALTH HYPE. This one’s legit!
I understand that all are not created equal, but thanks to the Kamashi of Japan, the integrity is still present. The word, Kamashi, is a title used for the craftsman at the Iwachu Tetsubin manufacturer in Japan who pride themselves on creating traditionally handmade Tetsubin pots by the same methods used over the last 4 centuries. Becoming a kamashi takes 15 years to master. Specifically speaking, the kamashi create nanbu ironware that originates from the nanbu clan who built their castle in Morioka Prefecture, Japan during the edo period. The casting process requires 68 steps at most.
The cost of Iwachu’s Tetsubin pots depends on how the pot is made. There are two molding processes: Mold firing and green-sand molding. Mold-firing requires the aforementioned 68-step process where each step is no less than the previous one. The procedure includes: creating a life-sized sketch of a particular pot design and mold-making for that design, or sanegata. The sanegata is a mold mixture of clay and mud that commonly requires dots that are depressed from the inside and stick upraised on the outside of the pot. Then it dries. After that, it’s on to the fun part: casting. The mold is fired at 900°C after all sand is removed and made up of 3 parts: upper-half, lower-half and the nakago (naka means inside ^^). The nakago determines how big the interior of the pot is. Molded iron, called “yu” or “hot water,” the kamashi pours with a ladle called the yukumi. Then comes kettle firing, or the rust-proofing procedure, followed by coloring. This process adds finishing design touches where lacquer is applied afterwards and heated for about 200°C. The lacquer solution consists of iron-rust vinegar and boiled-down green tea. The cherry on top would be the handle!
No lie. I’m still geeking out at the fact that there’s an ironsmith out there who specializes in HANDLES, of all things. But the CRAFTMANSHIP THO! At Iwachu the handle-maker crafts two types: Mukuzuru and Fukurozuru. Fukurozuru is the hollow handle where the design prevents heat conduction via the air passage. Mukuzuru is made by stretching an iron rod and bending it into a certain design.
Still with me?
Let’s not forget Iwachu’s second molding process: Green-sand molding. Moistened sand is packed into a mold in which the iron is poured. Green-sand utilizes modern and ancient casting techniques (named for this reason and has nothing to do with color) and is most commonly used for mass production, as well as international production. This process produces Tetsubin pots that tend to be lower-priced. Still high quality though.
Fun facts! I said it before, Iwachu takes pride in what they do. They pay homage to their superiors as is typical for Japanese culture and gladly mentions two high-quality brands of theirs: the Kiyosue brand of iron kettles (Nambu Iwachu Kiyosue) and Kiyoshige (Nambu Iwachu Kiyoshige). The Kiyosue name is much like an acronym in that it’s the Chinese characters of the Iwachu founder’s name: Iwashimizu Suekichi. The Kiyoshige brand is named after the company’s former president. Apparently these pots can be used for over half a century with proper care.
Did I mention that I love my pot?
The interesting thing about Tetsubin pots is that there’s no specific website or source that discusses the process. Well..if you’re an English speaker ^///^. I mostly found prices, brands, ads and symbolism. Westerners may have to do some digging. But I think it’s worth it. The most history I got about the pot is thanks to the Iwachu brand.
I never started paying attention to cast iron teapots, despite my growing love for different teas, until a family member gave me a free tea service “for here” instead of “to go.” She continued working as a barista, that day, while I had a teapot and all at my leisure.
Japanese culture continues to do what it does best, it seems: sustaining modern relevancy through tradition. The culture might even be fortunately stubborn that way, no? I ain’t mad at ‘em.
I don’t think a little stubbornness is a bad thing in this age of mass-producing convenience and jumping on niche bandwagons. Niches are good but I think balancing integrity with the mighty dollar is best achieved by one’s own hands rather than letting a CEO offer it to me. Iwachu and even The Nerdist do that well, I think.
Just a thought.
WANNA LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS TOPIC?
- Tierra Zen (YouTube Channel)
- Republic of Tea
- Heath – NEWS & VIEWS
- California Academy of Sciences
**COA's, Disclaimers and ETC's**
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