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Of all the high-ranking samurai's cultural pursuits, none infatuated them as much as the tea ceremony. By the 13th century Zen Buddhist monks had introduced the rituals of tea drinking to the Ashikaga warlords, who practiced it on a lavish scale. Yoshimasa, the eighth Ashikaga shogun, promoted a simpler, more spiritual ceremony in the late 1400s. At his ornate villa outside Kyoto, Yoshimasa added a small tea room that held only a handful of people, the model for today's ceremonies. Powerful warlords began to follow his example by adopting the tea ceremony as a badge of refinement. The meditative act of making and drinking tea in a small space—one where sword wearing, even by samurai, was forbidden—must have captivated battle-weary warriors. Some samurai prized their tea utensils as much as their swords. The hard and soft edges of the samurai show up in a description of the general Kanamori Yoshishige: "He defended the castle of Kishiwada and personally took 208 heads. He was also a noted tea master."

Inside a serene first-floor room in an office building in downtown Osaka, where sunlight crept through rice-paper windows, I bowed to tea master Chikuyu Fukuda and asked him about the link between the warrior and the tea ceremony. Master Fukuda had just finished conducting a practice ceremony for a few students. I had joined them in drinking frothy green Chinese tea, made from a powder that Fukuda had prepared with a whisk and hot water. After sipping the tea from the same 500-year-old cup, we took several minutes to admire the carefully orchestrated grace notes of the room—the sprig of pear blossoms flowing from a vase, the smell of plum wood incense.

"The tea ceremony is a spiritual activity," Master Fukuda told me, sitting on his heels in the formal way. He looked about 60, had a thin, handsome face, and wore the broad hakama trousers typical of the samurai. "The samurai came to a tea room to calm down and appreciate the moment," he said. I admitted that I couldn't picture a samurai squeezing his ego into such a delicate space and letting down his guard. The tea master smiled and suggested that I, like the warriors of old, should relax, look around the room again, and enjoy myself. So I did. The sense of well-being I experienced was perhaps the closest I came to appreciating how a medieval samurai might have felt during a rare recess from war.

No amount of cultural refinement or religious observance could quell the deeper instincts of most samurai leaders for naked power. The unchecked ambitions of the warlords ran amok during the Ashikaga shoguns' reign—a period of frequent warfare from the early 1300s to the late 1500s—akin to the darkest days of medieval Europe. Any semblance of central rule had dissolved entirely by the mid-15th century as the most powerful clans (about 20 controlled most of Japan) fought for supremacy during a 100-year period called Sengoku Jidai, the Age of the Country at War.

The character of battles changed dramatically. Armies of tens of thousands of samurai marched across the land to lay siege to castles, their ranks swollen by the enlistment of farmers pressed into battle as foot soldiers. Many of these ashigaru, or light feet, carried firearms. Muskets called harquebuses arrived in Japan in 1543, carried by Portuguese adventurers blown off course on a voyage to China. Japan quickly copied the technology, and within 30 years its armies led the world in the number of guns shouldered into combat. Battles became longer, bloodier, and more decisive. With each defeat of a warlord the countryside was flooded with his surviving unemployed warriors, the masterless samurai known as ronin, men of the waves.

Those combat-mad times—and the hundreds of films, video games, comic books, and TV dramas they still spawn—feed the imaginations of those Japanese children who grow up playing with plastic swords. Most outgrow the samurai fantasy, but a battleground exists for those who don't, those who crave the sensation well into adulthood of strapping on armor, unsheathing a sword, and playing war.

Each spring in cities and towns across Japan, make-believe samurai clash in battle reenactments. The events involve hundreds of local citizens—from businessmen and rice farmers to high school students and teachers—who parade down streets in resplendent rented armor. Afterward, usually on an open field or in a park, the weekend warriors act out a highly choreographed, noncontact version of a famous battle, often to stormy music played over a loudspeaker.

To some history buffs, these civic extravaganzas have sissified the samurai, elevating spectacle over realism and, worse yet, taking away the fun of fighting. One Friday in mid-April on a wide bank of the Ara River, outside the town of Yorii, I met a band of maverick reenactors who were determined to add grit and bruises to the pageantry. Practicing for the next day's battle—the re-creation of the siege of Hachigata castle in 1590—they had strapped on glossy red or black armor that from a distance made them look like giant, hyperactive beetles. Even in dress rehearsal they were fighting. They jabbed each other with foam-tipped lances, weapons customized by the organizers so combatants could strike each other without too much damage.

Their ranks included a construction worker, a physician, a graduate student in history, a former movie stuntman, a warehouse employee, a novelist, and a salaryman—a Japanese office worker. "I love armor," said salaryman Kimiya Kimura, preening in his hard, shiny shell. "Would you want to go back in time?" I asked. "Hmm, fifty-fifty," he replied. "I romanticize those times, but I also fear them. It was live or die."

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