I was asked to evaluate a chawan (Japanese teabowl for matcha) by a friend on the TeaChat forum recently. In my reply, I explained why I personally would be reluctant to buy it. My friend asked if I would be willing to share my comments with others. I didn’t want to single out a particular potter’s chawan as a “bad example” (plus, I’m hardly infallible in these matters). Instead, I’ve rewritten my comments as this generic checklist, which may be handy for anyone who is thinking about purchasing a chawan.

A chawan ... but is it what you want?

If there are any senior Chadou practitioners out there who would like to correct or expand on any of these points, I welcome your feedback.

1 – Is the surface of the bowl (especially the interior) smooth or rough?

Most people who want teabowls for matcha – and all practitioners of Japanese tea ceremony (a.k.a. Chadou, the Way of Tea) – should give preference to bowls whose interior surfaces are smooth. Some bowls can be very rough in texture; for example, Shigaraki wares are frequently somewhat pebbly. If there are bumps on the interior, they can cause problems when whisking the matcha – especially if they are convex (“outies”) and not concave (“innies”).

I have a friend who has never used the visually stunning Shigaraki bowl that she purchased for a huge sum; once she got it home, she was chagrined to realize that the gritty texture on the interior would cut a bamboo whisk to shreds. However, if the surface of the chawan you’re considering has pits rather than bumps, and they’re not too deep, it may not be too much of an issue for you.

2 – Is the edge of the bowl smooth?

Similarly, the edge of the bowl should be smooth. In Chadou, a rough or irregular edge be an issue for two reasons.

First, you as host must be able to wipe the edge of the bowl smoothly with the chakin (small linen cloth) as part of the tea ceremony; with a rough edge, this can be next to impossible.

Secondly, you need to present the guest with a comfortable drinking surface, and it’s not generally pleasant to drink from a cup whose rim is jagged or coarse. If the chawan under consideration has any “jags” in the rim, or any other impediments to smoothness (pits, carbuncles, grooves), again I would have questions about that.

Still, if you’re simply making tea for yourself alone, these points may not be that relevant.

3 – Can the foot be gripped easily?

If you are buying a bowl via the Internet, this is something that you will have to judge from the photographs. Any seller of chawan-s who is familiar with Chadou knows that the foot is very important, and will provide at least one good photograph of the foot ring.

Why does this matter? The tea host needs to be able to pour the rinse water out of the bowl one-handedly, by placing the left thumb on the lip and the other fingers within the ring of the foot. A foot that is too shallow, or awkwardly made in some way, is to be avoided because there is a very real danger of dropping the bowl and damaging it.

Even if you are not interested in Chadou, there are two more considerations. Firstly, the foot should be being level and stable (you don’t want the bowl to rock while you’re whisking!). Secondly, the base of the foot should be smooth, since if it is roughened, it may scratch some surfaces on which it is placed such as lacquered shelves or serving trays. (In some cases, fortunately, it is possible to sand the foot, using sandpaper, and make the rough surface smoother.)

There are various types of foot (koudai in Japanese). Some of these can be seen in an article on e-yakimono.net called Kodai – What’s the Fuss about the Foot. There is one type, known as kabuto (helmet), in which the clay at the centre of the bowl’s base comes to a sharp little point. This point is shallower than the foot ring itself; in fact it’s mainly decorative. (I’ll try to post a photo at some point.) However, Sensei – my teacher – does not care for the kabuto style because, she says, tea practitioners with sensitive fingers may find it a little painful to hold (especially when pouring out the rinse water as host).

So… even the “approved” foot styles are not liked by everyone. It helps to see chawan-s in real life, and to hold them, to really understand what to look for!

4 – Are the dimensions of the bowl appropriate?

Chawan dimensions can vary, so the answer to this question is not always obvious. Typical bowls are between 4.5″ and 5″ in diameter at the rim, while the larger bowls (such as those made from raku) can be a little wider still. The height is typically between 3″ and 4″, but does not often go much beyond that. The reasons for these dimensions is so that that the whisk has enough room to “work” inside the bowl without actually splashing about too much.

In Chadou, the only time you get really wide bowls (over 5″) is in the hottest months of summer, when bowls known as natsujawan (summer bowls) or hirajawan (shallow bowls) make an appearance. With these, the idea is to actually allow the tea to cool a little bit, prior to the guest’s drinking it, by offering more surface area. These bowls are not only wide, but considerably more shallow, with a typical height of 2.5″. They are sometimes slightly V-shaped in appearance, too. It can be challenging to whisk matcha effectively in such a shallow bowl.

There are three other types of bowls that you may sometimes see:

  • Tsutsu-jawan, or “tube [shaped] teabowl”. This is a narrower, taller chawan that is traditionally used only in the coldest month of winter – which is February by Japanese reckoning.
  • The second type is called either ko-jawan (“small teabowl”) or nodate-jawan (“teabowl for outdoors”). This is a smaller bowl that is considered more portable; it may be carried either in a bag with smaller-than-average utensils (including a collapsible teascoop!), or packed away in a special chabako or “tea box”. (I own two nodate-jawan; they are, respectively, 3.75″-4″ in diameter and 2.5″-3″ in height.)
  • Tenmoku-jawan (also transliterated as Temmoku). This is a V-shaped bowl with a very tiny foot. In traditional tea ceremony, this type of chawan is reserved for serving to “nobles”, and it requires a special stand called a dai. Unless you are studying Chadou, it’s unlikely that you will ever need one of these.

In the case of both tsutsu-jawan and nodate-jawan, a smaller-than-average tea whisk is required because a full-sized specimen will simply not fit into the chawan. It’s unlikely that you will come across many of these two chawan types, but it is good to recognize them when you do.

So when you are evaluating a teabowl, try to work out whether it is neutrally shaped (= can be used any time of year), it will hold in the heat (wintertime), or it will allow the tea to cool (summertime).

To be continued…

A Nezumi-Shino chawan made by a Japanese potter (and one that fulfils the traditional criteria):

Nezumi-Shino chawan