"Ichi Raku, ni Hagi, san Karatsu." -a Japanese expression: First Raku, second Hagi, third, Karatsu, essentially affirming the superiority of Raku yaki. Of course, art apreciation is always subjective.
Raku yaki originated towards the end of the 16th century in Kyoto, during the rule of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, by Sasaki Chojiro, a tile maker who enjoyed the patronage of Sen no Rikyu. Chojiro's chawans sought to embody the essence of wabi cha, Rikyu's fusion of the cha no yu with the aesthetic ideals of wabi sabi.
The briefest explanation of wabi sabi I can offer is finding beauty in the impermanence and imperfection of things.
Prior to Rikyu and Chojiro's contributions, the tea ceremony was a rather jovial affair, full of pomp, and expensive, ornate chawans from China were widely used. Rikyu sought to merge Zen and Tao with Chado, thus the tea ceremony evolved. Chojiro's Raku yaki (at the time it was called ima yaki, literally now ware) were ideal for this. They were monochrome, traditionally black (kuro) or red (aku)--these colors were thought best for enhancing the color of the tea.
Raku yaki is formed completely by hand and low-fired in a special kiln. The resulting piece is light weight and delicate.
Chawan, Chasen, and Chashoku
(Things you need to make matcha).
The aku raku is from artistic nippon; it is wonderful and indeed light weight and delicate. I particularly enjoy the glaze.
The other two chawan were made in Tokoname. I purchased them from Rishi about a year ago. I have been using them as teacups; they comfortably hold an entire pot of tea, and are considerably more aesthetically harmonious with my my Tokoname yaki then a coffee mug.
For making matcha, the larger raku is more suitable. The wider diameter makes it easier to whisk the tea--I found it more difficult to get a good froth going when using one of the other two, and the raku has less heat retention, allowing one to drink the tea immediately. This is important, because if the tea is allowed to sit too long, the matcha will begin to settle.
The last two things you need. The chashoku is not as important, but they are affordable, about $5, and are kind of cool. A chasen is a small work of art in and of itself, and essential to getting the best out of your matcha. As Kevin's expert eye pointed out, this chasen was made in China, not Japan, which explains the lower price I paid. (Thank you Yoshikawa san for being so honest about it as well). While a Chinese made chasen can be good quality, it is likely that it will not last as long as a Japanese made one will. So when choosing a chasen, let the price be your guide and be concerned if the price is too low.
That covers the equipage, next post we'll finally get to the matcha.
For more information about Raku yaki, take a look at the website. It includes a gallery of chawans created by fifteen generations, from Chojiro to the current head of the family, Kichizaemon.