If you’re familiar with the Japanese teapot “kyusu”, you’ve probably noticed it has its’ handle to the side at a 90 degree angle instead of to the back like most other tea pots. That is, tea pots for making oolong tea and other black teas for example, generally have back handles which align with the spout. Since I grew up being accustomed to the side-handled kyusu (specific Japanese term: yokode no kyusu), I never questioned why the kyusu came to be this particular form. Today, I’d like to share with you a bit of context and history diving into the side-handled kyusu that is commonly found across Japanese households.
To recap, a kyusu is a tool that is utilized to steep tea by putting tea leaves and pouring hot water inside. While there are a variety of Japanese kyusu types (refer to this Yunomi article about the four different types of Japanese teapots) such as the houhin (i.e., teapot that is often utilized for making teas such as gyokuro requiring lower temperature water), the most typical Japanese tea pot has a side-handle that is perpendicular to the spout.
The famous Tokoname-yaki kyusu tea pot with side handle. Yamaki Ikai M73: Gyokuryu, 80ml.
Origin of kyusu
Like tea, kyusu has its roots in neighboring China. To elaborate, its’ origin lies in a pot called kifus (Japanese: 急須（キフス)) which held the purpose for warming alcohol, with roots in the Song Dynasty (years 960-1279). In addition, there was the kibusho (Japanese: 急焼（キプシュ)), also with a side-handle, utilized for warming water. A neat fact I read is that even today, in certain areas of Nagasaki, Fukuoka and Saitama Prefectures (i.e., major tea producing areas), kyusu is often referred to as gibisho (i.e., coming from the Chinese word kibusho), I am guessing more so especially in the older generations.
How the kyusu evolved into a teapot dedicated for tea
The side-handled teapots from China were multi-functional, being utilized not only for warming up water and alcohol but also for making food such as rice porridge and infusions for medicinal herbs. Still, this type of tea pot came to Japan during the Edo Period (1603-1867), just around the time when steaming Japanese tea began to be established and steeping tea in hot water was becoming the main way tea was enjoyed.
In this way, the kyusu came to Japan at an ideal time when it was simply a perfect tool for making Japanese tea. For boiling water, there were other preexisting tools such as the clay pot, dobin (Japanese: 土瓶) as well as kettles (Japanese: yakan) with back handles. These pots held larger volumes of water, which was usually unnecessary to make tea. The kyusu was therefore naturally selected as the most suitable tool.
An example of a dobin tea pot, literally a "top hand tea pot": Nankei Pottery's acorn-shaped bankoyaki dobin tea pot with wooden handle, 430ml.
Baisao spreads use of kyusu
It is said that the side-handled kyusu spread in Japan thanks to Baisao, who has been referred to as the “old tea seller”, a name he picked up from his nomadic manner in making and selling tea.
At the time (around 1730’s) when Baisao started to travel around Kyoto, tea was not something that was consumed and shared by the common people. It was a luxury item amongst the elite. Powdered matcha tea was also the universal means of drinking tea. Baisao had, however, learned how to prepare loose-leaf tea during his monastic life (he had devoted himself to the practice of Zen Buddhism when he was young) and therefore traveled around preparing sencha-style tea. At the age of 61 (in 1735), he also set up the very first tea house called Tsusen-tei in Kyoto by the famous Kamo River. It is said that Baisao, who carried all of his tea utensils with him on a piece of bamboo (as depicted in the image to the left: Painting of Baisao by Ito Jakuchu), very much enjoyed utilizing the side-handled kyusu. He traveled with his tea ceremony tools selling tea, at the same time spreading Buddhist teachings. Accordingly, Baisao is regarded to be the central figure responsible for spreading the use of kyusu in Japan.
Notably, the tea tools that Baisao carried around with him and used to prepare tea were all imported from China. Tea ceremony tools from China were quite expensive during this time and for this reason, domestic teaware production was initiated. Additionally, tea strainers, which make it easier to brew tea, also became widespread. This was the beginning of the adaptation of the kyusu to Japanese tea.
The present kyusu and beyond
As illustrated, the history of the yoko de no kyusu (side-handled kyusu) is rather straightforward. Still, it is neat to be aware of how the function and shape of the kyusu evolved throughout history, taking its recent form. In China today, it is rare for side-handled teapots to be produced. On the other hand, the Japanese kyusu has attracted attention due to its unique form, being reverse imported into China. Although the yoko de no kyusu has now long been appreciated across numerous households in Japan, the younger generation today consume tea via more readily accessible mediums such as plastic bottles rather than making loose leaf tea in kyusu, so much that researchers such as Junyuki Nakamura at Shizuoka University have highlighted the term “kyusu banare” (i.e., separation from teapot). Because I associate the kyusu as a common household item and one which cultivates “Cha no Ma” (i.e.,the intricate and social process of preparing, steeping, presenting and drinking tea ) and connection, it is somewhat discouraging to think that the kyusu may be gradually diminishing from Japanese culture. How, and will the kyusu evolve with time as the way tea is enjoyed changes?
For now, I will simply appreciate its presence. Here, in front of me…
Our neko (cat in Japanese) Bouquet, participating in cha no ma! Do you have a favorite kyusu?
Featured image: Yoko de no kyusu (side handled Japanese teapot), specifically made for those who are left-handed: Koizumi's Left-handed Black Tokoname-yaki kyusu tea pot, 330ml.