Ōtagaki Rengetsu is perhaps the most famous poet of the 19th century and is also known for her excellent skills in calligraphy and pottery. She was born the illegitimate daughter of a samurai
from the Tōdō family. Soon after her birth, she was adopted by Ōtagaki Mitsuhasa, who worked at Chion'in, an important temple of the Jōdo (Pure Land) school in Kyōto. In 1798, after losing her
mother and brother, she was sent to serve as a lady-in-waiting at Kameoka Castle in Tanba, where she was taught classical poetry, calligraphy, and martial arts.
At the age of 33, she had already experienced some fateful years in her life, losing two husbands and all five of her children. She then decided to shave her hair and take vows, taking the name Rengetsu (Lotus Moon). She lived with her stepfather near Chion'in Temple. After his death in 1832, Rengetsu began making her extraordinary pottery, which she usually inscribed with her own waka (31-syllable classical poetry) and sold to support herself. With her unique combination of pottery, calligraphy, and poetry, Rengetsu gained recognition far beyond the borders of Kyōto during her lifetime.
Rengetsu wrote numerous tanzaku poems, which were later mounted as hanging scrolls by admirers and collectors. Here we have one such poem in Rengetsu's distinctive handwriting, describing a scene of looking at the moon at night from a riverbank in the village of Hirakata:
"Moon at the Riverside"
My eyes float past
the reaching and pulling
on a riverboat...
walking with the moon
here in Hirakata village.
Hirakata is a town at the Yodo River, which connects the cities of Kyōto and Ōsaka. The river is therefore a central route for the exchange of goods and is heavily frequented by countless boats, even at night. Observing the boats and the moon from the riverbank, Rengetsu poetically combines the movement of the boats with that of the moon, as if they were traveling together:
The scroll is certified by Tokuda Kōen (1935-2011), a specialist for Rengetsu works and former abbot of the Jinkō-in temple, where Rengetsu spend her last decade.
Black Robe, White Mist: Art of the Japanese Buddhist Nun Rengetsu, National Gallery of Australia, 2007.
Tokyo National Museum, Metropolitan Museum, Harvard Art Museum, National Gallery of Australia, Miho Museum, LACMA Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and many more...