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Tetsubin are traditionally heated over charcoal. In the Japanese art of chanoyu, the special portable brazier for this is the binkake (瓶掛). (See list of Japanese tea ceremony equipment). Tetsubin are often elaborately decorated with relief designs on the outside. They range widely in size, and many have unusual shapes, making them popular with collectors. A relatively small tetsubin may hold around 0.5 litres of water; large ones may hold around 5 litres.
The historical origin of the tetsubin is not certain. At least one authoritative Japanese source states that it developed from the spouted and handled water kettle called tedorigama that was already being used in chanoyu in the era of Sen no Rikyū (1522–91). During the 19th century, infused tea became more popular and tetsubin were considered primarily status symbols rather than functional kitchen items.
Outside Japan, a frequently seen variant is a cast-iron teapot that outwardly resembles a tetsubin. This type of teapot is glazed with enamel on the inside to make it more practical for tea brewing, though it can't be used to heat water because that would break the enamel coating. In the west, these teapots are commonly referred to as tetsubin, although the Japanese call them "tetsukyūsu" (鉄急須), or iron teapot, to make a distinction from the kettle. Cast-iron teapots often come with a tea strainer that fits inside.
It is not clear when the first tetsubin kettles appeared in Japan, but one hypothesis is that the popularity of the tetsubin grew alongside sencha, a form of leaf tea. China introduced Japan to sencha around the middle of the 17th century. Sencha was not considered as formal as matcha, the common powdered green tea at the time. Throughout the 18th century, people started drinking sencha as an informal setting for sharing a cup of tea with friends or family. As more people drank sencha, the popularity of the tetsubin grew. The tetsubin is most probably not an original design, but rather shaped by other kettles around at the time. The five closest relatives to the tetsubin are the tedorikama, the toyama, the mizusosogi, the dobin, and the yakkan.
The yakkan is the closest relative to the tetsubin, the main difference is that the yakkan is made from copper, whereas tetsubins are traditionally made out of iron. Some people have wondered why the tetsubin was developed, when a perfectly usable vessel such as the yakkan would have worked. Tea drinkers may have preferred the taste of water from an iron kettle over the taste of water from a copper kettle. Throughout the 18th century, tetsubin kettles became a standard household utensil for heating water to make tea with. As the use of these kettles increased, so too did the intricacy. During the 19th century, tetsubin designs went from simple basic iron kettles, to elaborately engraved masterpieces.
- Genshoku Chadō Daijiten 原色茶道大辞典: Tankosha, 1975. Japanese illustrated encyclopedia of "the way of tea", entry for "tedorigama".
- "History of the tetsubin". Retrieved 30 December 2011.
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