Ōtagaki Rengetsu is possibly the most famous female poet of 19th Century and also known for her excellent skills in calligraphy and pottery. Rengetsu wrote numerous tanzaku poem papers, which were later mounted by admirers and collectors as hanging scrolls. Here, we have such a poem in Rengetsu's distinct handwriting, dated with her age to 1871:
"Famous Place at the River"
Here in the shallows
warriors vied to cross
their names carried
to fame and oblivion
on the waters of the Uji
Speaking of warriors crossing the Uji River, Rengetsu is referring to a historically important moment in 1180 known as the Battle of Uji. Visiting the famous place (meisho) herself, she is recalling the tragic past of the incident with the sentiments of a Buddhist nun about the impermanence of life, but possibly also with the sentiments as an Imperial loyalist about the decline of the Imperial political power in that time.
The First battle of Uji is famous and important for having opened the Genpei War that led to the shift of force from the Taira to the Minamoto clan but also eventually to the end of the Heian period and the establishment of the bushi as new ruling class of the Japanese archipelago. In early 1180 Prince Mochihito, the Minamoto Clan's favored claimant to the Imperial Throne, was chased by Taira forces to the Mii-dera, a temple just outside Kyōto. Unfortunately, the Minamoto army arrived to late to help defend the temple and Minamoto no Yorimasa and Prince Mochihito, along with a force of about fifteen hundred men including the warrior monks of Mii-dera and the Watanabe clan, fled south towards Nara. They crossed the Uji River, just outside the Byōdō-in, and tore up the planks of the bridge behind them to prevent the Taira following them. However, as for the Taira troops, led by Ashikaga Tadatsuna, they soon began to fort the river and caught up with the Minamoto who were all killed at the end.
Just four years later, known as the Second Battle of Uji, it came to a reverse situation, in which it was now Minamoto no Yoshinaka who tried to wrest power from his cousins Yoritomo and Yoshitsune, seeking to take command of the Minamoto clan. To that end, he burned the Hōjūji Palace and kidnapped Emperor Go-Shirakawa. However, his cousins Noriyori and Yoshitsune caught up with him soon afterwards, following him through the waters of the Uji on New Year's Day in 1184, after Yoshinaka had torn up the bridge to impair their crossing. Much as the Taira did in the first battle, Minamoto no Yoshitsune led his horsemen across the river, and defeated Yoshinaka.
The scroll is certified by Horie Tomohiko (1907-1988), a well-known expert for calligraphy in Japan. Horie, born 1907 in Tōkyō, worked for the Tōkyō National Museum between 1934-1969. He became then Professor at the Nishogakusha University, where he taught the history and theory of East Asian calligraphy and published many books on that topic, which are still a benchmark today. He certified the scroll in January 1975.