“Thus prepared the guest will silently approach the sanctuary and, if a samurai, will leave his sword on the rack beneath the eaves, the tearoom being preeminently the house of peace.” – Kakuzo Okakura
Japanese warriors – samurai – followed Bushido, a code of conduct that stressed frugality, loyalty, mastery of martial arts, and fight unto death. Even though warriors were loyal soldiers, they lacked a defined place in society. Tea offered samurai an opportunity to socialize and learn about art, literature, and culture; in short, it played an important role of elevating their social status.
During the Muromachi era (1338-1573), samurai followed Zen Buddhist teachings. At this time, tea was served in monasteries and in the homes of elite citizens. Tea ceremony rituals signified culture and sophistication. Generals employed Zen Buddhist monks as advisors and cultural attaches. Monks accompanied the generals to the battlefield, setting up a proper tea hut near camp. Samurai soldiers visited the portable tea hut to practice the tea ceremony and meditate. The tea helped them to focus and stay alert. When at peace, samurai held tea parties as a way to establish social identity.
Chakai was an informal tea party. Traditional chakai included all the Earth’s elements: fire, water, wood, and metal. Hosts invited guests to a teahouse or tea garden. Tea gardens had a path, which led guests into a place of peace and harmony. The path led to the tea house, where the host awaited. The party started with the host building a fire to prepare tea. The host then prepared a bowl of thick powder tea, koicha, for everyone. Passing the bowl around the table, each guest took three and half sips. This was an ancient custom Taoist Chinese healer-monks practiced in their drafty mountain monasteries. Sharing tea symbolized togetherness in peace and harmony, a gesture that has overcome war, class, and international borders. Then the host prepared each guest a bowl of thin powder tea – usucha. Typically, guests spoke little at these gatherings. After the guests drank their fill, the host watched them walk the path of peace and harmony back to the real world.
Chakai gatherings range from serving powdered tea to serving a full meal. The host must learn the precise movements and techniques to serve tea and food. Proper Chinese art and utensils decorate the tea room.
Japanese elites valued the Chinese literati way of life, art, and tea. Studying and practicing chakai elevated the samurai‘s social status. A classic example is Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), the man who unified Japan.
Raised by a peasant, Hideyoshi worked hard in the imperial court, becoming a daimyo, a powerful land owner. Hideyoshi retained Sen no Rikyu, a famous tea master, to build him a golden tea room and teach him the way of tea. During his rise to power, Hideyoshi hosted several tea parties, inviting all Japan’s leaders. Powerful shoguns – military leaders – formed alliances at these meetings. At the height of his success, Hideyoshi hosted the Emperor in his golden tea room.