Cognizant of the cultural capital that accrued from such endeavors, many of Japan's warrior-rulers engaged in artistic activities. It has been noted that chanoyu (tea practice) appealed to elite warriors for this practical reason, among others that may have been more personally motivated. And while tea men from every social class traditionally carved bamboo teascoops both for their own use and, occasionally, to present as gifts to others, it's still quite unusual to see high-ranking warriors turn their hands to more arduous crafts.
That is what makes this exquisite lacquerware picnic set so special, since it was created by the powerful daimyo and well-known tea man Hosokawa Sansai (1563-1645). The eggplant motif for the sake flask is a auspicious one, as the Japanese word for eggplant, nasu, makes a phonetic allusion to a homophone verb which means "to succeed". I had the pleasure of examining this piece up close in 2009 at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum's "Lords of the Samurai" exhibit. The sake flask is accompanied by a food container (at bottom) and an ingenious sake cup made from the eggplant's "leaf". Its execution shows that Sansai was not a casual artist. Lacquerwork is a painstaking process, requiring time-consuming processes of applying, curing, polishing, and reapplying the lacquer -- itself a very tricky medium. It's not clear to me if this piece would have ever made an appearance in a tearoom -- it's more suited to elegant outings in the countryside -- but it offers mute testament to how important artistic endeavor was to leading Tokugawa statesmen.
A larger view of the photo can be seen at this link.
An interesting article on auspicious motifs in Japanese textiles may also interest some readers.