Japanese Cast Iron Kettles and Tea Pots

by Cinnabar on August 20, 2010

in Japanese

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The object in the accompanying photo is not a “tetsubin.” It is also not a “tetsubin teapot,” a “tetsubin tea kettle,” or a “cast iron tea kettle.” It is a cast iron teapot.

Japanese cast iron teapots like the one in the photograph are similar in appearance to a traditional Japanese tetsubin, which I suspect is the reason that they are often misleadingly called “tetsubin teapots.” This, in turn, has led to the misapplication of the word “tetsubin” to indicate cast iron, rather than as a reference to a similarity of form with a completely different item of tea ware.

Tetsubin (鉄瓶): An iron kettle with handle and spout. Used on the type of small brazier called binkake for tea procedures employing boxed tea sets (chabakodate), etc.

The definition is from A Chanoyu Vocabulary, Practical Terms for the Way of Tea, which is an excellent reference for Japanese tea terms. The book identifies 1650 terms related to Japanese tea culture, so I think that the desire for clarification of terminology is justifiable. The Japanese are historically quite thorough in the development of appropriate terminology to refer to very specific things. Unfortunately I do not have the knowledge of the Japanese language that would help with my research into cast iron teawares, but every reliable source that I found confirmed that the word “tetsubin” always means a particular type of Japanese water kettle. The illustration below shows the basic shape of a typical tetsubin. To be even more specific, the tetsubin is not the only kind of Japanese cast iron kettle. There is also the kama (sometimes spelled “gama”), which is an unhandled kettle that sits over or into a brazier (furo) for use in the the formal tea ceremony and which has several different types.

There are notable differences between tetsubin and Japanese iron teapots, principle and most obvious among them being that kettles are used for heating water and teapots are used for brewing tea. Japanese cast iron teapots also generally hold considerably less liquid volume and usually have an enamel lining, for the purpose of minimizing rust. Tetsubin, on the other hand, do not have linings of any kind as the direct effect of the iron on the water is desirable. A high quality tetsubin will cost more money to acquire, especially one in good, usable condition, as sadly, many of the antique tetsubin available for sale today are ruined due to excessive rust on the inner surfaces.

In spite of a lot of confusing naming and identification, Japanese cast iron teapots are quite useful. I have found that Japanese green teas taste very smooth and sweet when brewed in one. Cast iron cups also add a pleasant warmth of character and have a nice hand-feel. I would not use these items for other types of teas for a number of reasons, including incompatibility of iron with black teas and not wanting any darker tea residues to affect green tea brewing.

Guest post provided by Cinnabar of Gongfu Girl.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

swirlbat July 10, 2012 at 01:02

i would love a beautiful teapot in cast iron like the one pictured above , shiny , well taken care of , possibly new , definately black . but i love bats and the wu-fu and what they mean to the japanese and potentially the ceremony . can anyone help me find a reasonably priced (preferably from this century ) cast iron teapot with a bat on top and/ or on the sides ( saw a cool brass Binkake Hibachi to boil kettle for Sencha at Goto@gotoantiques.com with bat-sort of handles , but it was sold ! ) or wu-fu decorated ? even in porcelin or enamel would make me very happy , and bats and peaches paired i know are very auspicious . thanx tea lovers , SwirlBat

Cinnabar September 1, 2010 at 11:21

I might be able to help you with identifying those iron pieces, but I’m not able to picture exactly what they look like from your description. Do you have any photographs of them that you could email to me (cinnabar@gongfugirl.com)?

Jayme August 31, 2010 at 21:45

might you be able to direct me to information on braziers? I have two matching cast iron “bowls” with lids that sit on tiny tabs in the center of the bowl. They flip to a different design on each side. I’ve had them 35 years or so without really knowing what they are exactly. Heavy conical shape lent to the idea that coals would perc in the bottom and the wide lip would hold a teapot. Thanks. Jayme

Cinnabar August 20, 2010 at 15:36

There are probably people who would argue that the term has now been appropriately transformed to mean an iron teapot, but I hold to the etymological reasoning that holds that “tetsu” relates to iron, and “bin” always means a kettle. For example a silver kettle is a ginbin: “gin” being silver, and “bin” being kettle. And tetsubin-style teapot is at least more accurate.

Brett August 20, 2010 at 15:22

Whoa really they’re not called “tetsubins?” Thanks for posting. I wonder how this factoid ever missed my radar? I’m always very strict about the terms “kettle” and “teapot” and their appropriate uses as mentioned by this post but now it appears I’ll have to retrain myself not to call these iron pots tetsubins!

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