Making a good bowl of koicha

During koicha temae, the teishu asks the shokyaku “Ofukukagen wa ikaga desu ka?” How is the tea.  Of course out of politeness, it is always “Kekko desu, or Taihen kekko desu” It is good and sufficient.  But we need honest feedback in order to improve how we make koicha.  One of my students told me at class the other day, “Sensei, I am not sure I know what a good koicha is. Can you tell me how to make a good bowl of koicha?”

To answer this question, I looked at the Rikyu Hyakushu, 100 Rikyu poems* and found three that relate to this. I have included several of the translations I have come across:


Koicha ni was yukagen atsuku fuku wa nao awa naki you ni katamari mo naku

  • For koicha, have the water temperature hot, and make tea so that there is no foam nor any lumps.
  • When making koicha, the water should be hot, and no foam or lumps should form

So this is straightforward practical information.  We can control the temperature of the water if we can control the heating source (charcoal or electricity). We know that the water is the right temperature when we hear matsu kaze or the sound of the wind in the pine. To make tea without foam, the rhythm of the strokes of the chasen must not be too fast, and taking time to knead the tea well (not whisk) should eliminate the lumps. It also helps if the tea powder is sifted before putting it in the chaire.


Tonikaku ni fukuno kagen wo oboyuru wa koicha tabitabi tatete yoku shire

  • To learn how to make good koicha, you must make it time and again and make a good sense of it.
  • The best way to learn how to make good koicha is to make it many times.
  • The best way to remember how make good koicha is simply to make it frequently. Experience is the key.

So okay, making koicha a lot will help you learn how to make good koicha.  I suppose if you make koicha a lot, say 100 times, and each time it is different, then you have an experience base of 100 different bowls of koicha to choose what is best. However, if you are not drinking the koicha you are making, how do you know what is the best koicha to choose.  It doesn’t help if your guest tells you each and every bowl of koicha you made is good and sufficient either.


Koicha ni wa temae o hitosuji ni fuku no kagen to iki o morasu na

  • For koicha, spare the temae and focus on tempering the tea and not letting your breath escape.
  • When making koicha, discard ceremony and pay attention to making good tea and regulate your breathing.
  • In serving koicha, forget the ceremony and keep your attention on making good tea. Do not lose the rhythm of your breathing.
  • When making koicha, discard all notions of temae and procedure. Proceed to prepare the portion straightforwardly, and without any breaks or pauses.

This poem is rather unhelpful in making good koicha as well.  Making good koicha is a goal, and to do it you don’t have to necessarily follow temae procedure or worry about mistakes, but pay attention to making it good and regulate breathing, without any breaks or pauses. Uh-huh. I want to make good koicha and I am paying attention to my breathing and making it without any breaks or pauses.  Guests still tell me it is good and sufficient, but how do I know?

One thing I have learned on how to make good koicha, is to drink a lot of koicha. Everyone will have his/her own preference of how they prefer to koicha. You have to drink a lot of koicha to compare how you like your koicha. It also is important to understand where you are in the order of drinking koicha in that the first guest’s tea will be different from the last guest’s tea. Different blends of koicha from the same tea company will taste different, and different tea companies will have a different flavor.  Also year to year, like wine, the same named tea will taste different.  Sometimes memory, location, humidity and any number of other things will influence how the tea tastes. For example, I had a tea named Hikari when I was in Kyoto, but when I found it and ordered it in the U.S., it didn’t taste anything like I remembered it.

So let me tell you a few things teachers have told me on how to make a good bowl of koicha:

Sensei says:

  • Of course you should use higher quality tea to make koicha.  Because the flavor of koicha is concentrated, if you use lower quality tea and it is bitter, the flavor of the koicha will be especially bitter.

So yes, I have tried to make koicha from lower quality matcha and yes, it is all the more concentrated than if I had made usucha with it.  Sometimes, too, the foam from usucha will make it creamier and may disguise bitterness.

  • When making koicha, pour in 80% of the water you need for the first kneading. Make sure all the lumps are gone, then put in the final 20% and quickly mix to the right consistency.

So here is some more practical advice.  Put in 80% of the water you need the first time around.  This will help in making sure you have sufficient water to knead the lumps out of the tea. If you do not have enough water, it will be so thick that it sticks to the chasen and the sides of the bowl and makes it difficult to knead. I know I have not put in enough water, and have developed the dreaded hard ball of tea in the center of the chasen. No matter how much you try to get it out or how much second water you use, it will just stick in there and get harder as you knead the tea.

  • To make good koicha, you must knead it at least 100 strokes

Sometimes it takes more than 100 strokes.  I went to an intensive one time and the instructor told us that we should take the time to knead the tea to bring out the true flavor of the koicha.  Quite often she said, we hurry through this part of making tea, and the tea doesn’t have time open up. I also have my own theory about taking time to knead the tea well.  Sometimes when I drink koicha it has a grainy texture to it.  But if the tea is kneaded well it is creamy and silky on the tongue. My theory is that by not taking the time to knead the tea, the dried matcha has not had time to hydrate and so remains grainy. But if it has the time to hydrate, it has a different texture.

So a few more tips of my own on making good koicha. You can experiment on your own to see if they are practical for you.

  • Pour enough water in the bowl so that the tea floats.

This is practical in that it doesn’t matter if you are making tea for 2 people of 5 people. Put enough water in the bowl so the tea just begins to float before you begin to knead. Some people knead in a parentheses manner ( ) to keep the tea in the bottom of the bowl without it crawling up the sides.  Other people knead in a W or M manner back and forth across the bowl. In either case, pay attention to the front of the bowl nearest you because that is where the tea likes to hang out and form lumps. Make sure your rhythm is slow enough so there is no foam. As you knead, it seems like the tea is getting thicker, because it is. The tea is cooling as you knead it.

  • When the tea is getting ready to serve, the texture will change, and the fragrance of it will come up into your face.

The texture will start to become smooth and shiny.  You can almost feel the difference in the resistance of the chasen as it changes if you are paying attention.  And suddenly, you will be able to smell the fragrance of the tea.  Now is the time to put the second water in the bowl and mix it quickly to the right consistency.  This is practical if you are making tea in a dark room in a black raku bowl and it is hard to see what is going on with the tea.

  • When you lift the chasen to add the second water, look at the consistency of the tea in the bowl, and how much is coating the tines of the chasen.

This is your chance to add hot water to warm up the tea again, and to adjust the consistency.  If you make koicha to the perfect consistency when you put it out for the shokayku, it is too thick. The tea will cool and get thicker for each subsequent guest until the last guest may not be able to drink it by the time it gets to him/her. Practically speaking, the tea must be thin enough for the last guest to be able to drink it, but not too thin.  The first guest will have a hotter, thinner bowl of tea than the last guest.

  • When the bowl returns to you, look at the coating inside the bowl as you bring it in.

This is for your own experience and information. If there is no tea sticking to the sides of the bowl, then probably the tea was too thin. If there is a thick pudding of tea left, then it was probably too thick.  I like koicha to come back with a coating of tea on the sides that looks like an interesting landscape.

I have recently asked students who are making koicha to make enough for one extra guest, and then join the guests to drink their own koicha as the last guest, so that they know what it is like for the last guest to drink their koicha. Some people prefer thicker tea, some thinner. Some students like to be the first to drink, some prefer to be the last. I think these preferences are all good, and it helps to know how your guests like their tea.

I hope this helps you make a better bowl of koicha. If you have further tips on making good koicha, please add them in the comments.

*For more on Rikyu’s 100 poems please see these posts:

June 10 2011
June 16, 2011
July 8, 2011
July 22, 2011
Sept. 9, 2011

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Archery and chado

I have recently taken up the sport of archery. It is not the Japanese form of archery, Kyudo, but modern target archery with a recurve bow. Now archery is not a sport of athleticism and it doesn’t take a lot strength, although you will see some guys at the range bragging about how many pounds they can pull on their bows. I am not by any means an athletic specimen, and I don’t have a lot of upper body strength. The indoor range where we shoot is a maximum of 20 yards. At that distance, even a bow like mine, of 20 lbs. is more than enough to shoot your arrows to the target.

No, archery is a sport of accuracy, consistency, form and concentration. Feedback is instant in that your arrows end up on target or not. Minor changes in your body stance, grip, hand positions, head positions, anchor, follow through and more can affect where that arrow goes. Even if you are sure that everything is exactly the same as the last shot, a small lapse in concentration when you release your arrows can make it fly wide of the target.

So what have I learned, since I began to practice archery? It is a practice. The more arrows I shoot, the better I get. It is not just about how many arrows I can get off in a session, but how many arrows I can get hitting the target. Sometimes it is how many arrows can I get close to hitting the target.

It is not about the equipment. I complained one time to my instructor about how I cannot hit the target with the equipment I was using. He took the same bow and same arrows and hit 5 out 5 in the middle of the target.

I have also learned to be more aware of my body and all its parts. Like when I first began tea practice, I felt like a cow in the tea room. I felt like I didn’t really have control of my body. In archery, figuring out my stance, where my elbows are pointing, what my bow hand is doing, what position my head is in, makes me consciously think about where my body is in space and what it is doing at any moment. And like when I started tea, it sometimes feels overwhelming with all the things I need to think about.

In archery, breathing is important. Don’t hold your breath, but taking the shot between breaths sometimes makes for a better shot. When I am aiming for the target, breathing helps me settle down and stops my hand from shaking. Yes, just like making tea, the temae helps me settle down, control my breathing and stops my hand from shaking.

I never knew how something like archery and chado could be so much alike.

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Kobukusa Making

Last week we had a workshop on how to make a kobukusa taught by sempai Kate.  The first thing we did is learn how to test fabric to find out the fiber content. Different fabrics react differently to being burned.  Using samples of known content, we tested them by burning and comparing to the handy chart provided by Kate.  For example, when approaching the flame, silk smolders and curls away. In the flame it slowly sputters and goes out when removed from the flame.  It smells like burning hair and the ash produced is round, shiny, black bead that is easily crushed.  So if you can pull a few threads or snip a small sample from a seam or other inconspicuous place, you can find out the fabric content of your material.

Everyone was provided a fabric burn test kit to take home.  You can put one together yourself.  Tweezers to hold burning fabric, mini lighter and burn test chart.  You can download a copy of the chart here. She put it all in an small tin that can be used as your burn platform and is portable to take with you when you are purchasing fabric.

Here are some photos of cutting pattern, marking, pinning, and sewing the kobukusa:

After pressing the seams, we did the kobukusa magic and turned it right side out.

Here are some photos from the previous workshop: As a reward for all of you who have read down to the end, here is a pattern and instructions for sewing your own kobukusa.

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Supporting players

Not everyone gets to be the star every time.  The lead singer or guitarist gets all the accolades and the bass player and drummers get little notice. Quite often it is these supporting players, who make the stars look their best.  We tend to focus on the front men, and ignore the behind the scenes workers.

Every successful business person has said that they didn’t accomplish what they did alone. They all had a team of supporters, mentors, coaches and assistants.  Keith Richards said that his job is to make Mick Jagger look and perform his best.

I had a new student tell me the other day that they thought the teishu was the most important person in the chakai. But in fact everyone has a role to play that is important, too.  For the guests, having an excellent shokyaku really enhances the experience by calling attention to things the host has chosen for the guests.  The shokayku in speaking for the rest of the guests, has a huge responsibility to make sure that she is paying attention to the timing and asking questions at the appropriate time.  The shokyaku also makes sure that things are moving along when the teishu is not in the room, as when the guests are eating the meal.  It is also the responsibility of the shokyaku to make sure all of the guests are included and that they feel comfortable with what is going on and reminding the other guests about small things like RSVP and thank you notes.

The mizuya cho is also an important role that often doesn’t get a lot of attention.  I know that when I have a good cho, that I can relax a little as a teishu, because the cho has everything under control behind the scenes.  I am assured that when I need to bring in the kensui, the cho has already soaked the hishaku so it doesn’t slide off the kensui when I carry it into the room, and that the sweets are ready at the proper time and oriented so that all I have to do is pick them up and take them in to serve to the guests. This and a thousand other things the cho can do to make the job easier for the teishu.

Most of all the hanto has the hardest job.  Even though the hanto is billed as the host’s assistant, he is crucial to making everything go smoothly.  The hanto has to pay attention to what is going on in the tea room, the mizuya and the kitchen.  If there is anything that is going wrong in the tea room, it is the hanto who steps up and takes care of it. Spilled the tea? The hanto is right there to clean it up. Timing going a little long?  It is the hanto who communicates that to the kitchen and mizuya.  Sometimes it is the hanto who is explaining things to guests, or delivering and returning the haiken dogu.  The hanto is the one who stays in the room with the kinin. And all the while the hanto has to make sure that the teishu is taken care of without calling attention to himself.

Recently, I had a compliment from a teacher. She said that all of my students were modest, didn’t put themselves forward, or call attention to themselves, and deferred to other teachers and senior students.  Yet they were always there to help out, clean up, and make sure others felt comfortable.  It is not often that people notice these kinds of behaviors, let alone compliment them. In our society we celebrate the leading scorers, the star players. Everyone knows their names and what they accomplished. But it is the unknowns working hard behind the scenes that really make everything successful.

In the tea room, the supporting players, though little noticed, make everything run smoothly. If they do their job properly, they don’t call attention to themselves, yet the experience for everyone is enhanced.

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Kobukusa making workshop

Saturday, May 13, 11:00 am. Fee $10.

Kobukusa making workshop taught by Kate Comstock. Students will learn about fabrics used for kobukusa, a small cloth used in Chanoyu. Pattern, written instructions, and fabric testing kit will be included.

Techniques for sewing, secrets for perfect corners, and kobukusa magic will be taught. Bring your own silk fabric, or cotton to use as a trial. Some silk fabrics may be available.

To reserve your place, sign up at class or contact Margie. Space is limited to 6.

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