Ōtagaki Rengetsu is perhaps the most famous female poet of the 19th century and is also known for her excellent skills in calligraphy and pottery. Rengetsu wrote many tanzaku poems, which were later mounted as hanging scrolls by admirers and collectors. Here is one such poem in Rengetsu's distinctive handwriting, dated with her age to 1871:
"Famous place by the river"
Here in the shallows
Warriors vied to cross
Their names carried
To fame and oblivion
On the waters of the Uji River.
Speaking of warriors crossing the Uji River, Rengetsu refers to a historically important moment in 1180 known as the Battle of Uji. Visiting the famous site (meisho) herself, she recalls the tragic past of the incident with the feelings of a Buddhist nun about the impermanence of life. However, as an imperial loyalist herself, Rengetsu wrote this poem not without a sentiment about the decline of imperial political power at that time.
The First Battle of Uji is famous and important for opening the Genpei War, which led to the shift of power from the Taira to the Minamoto clan, but also to the end of the Heian period and the establishment of the Bushi as the new ruling class of the Japanese archipelago. In early 1180, Prince Mochihito, the Minamoto clan's favored claimant to the imperial throne, was pursued by Taira forces to Mii-dera, a temple outside Kyōto. Unfortunately, the Minamoto army arrived too late to 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 toward 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 from following them. However, the Taira troops, led by Ashikaga Tadatsuna, soon began to ford the river and caught up with the Minamoto, who were all killed in the end.
Just four years later, in what became known as the Second Battle of Uji, the situation was reversed, with Minamoto no Yoshinaka attempting to wrest power from his cousins Yoritomo and Yoshitsune and take command of the Minamoto clan. To this end, he burned down Hōjūji Palace and kidnapped Emperor Go-Shirakawa. However, his cousins Noriyori and Yoshitsune soon caught up with him and followed him across the waters of the Uji on New Year's Day 1184, after Yoshinaka had torn down the bridge to impede their crossing. As the Taira had done in the first battle, Minamoto no Yoshitsune led his riders across the river and defeated Yoshinaka.
The scroll is authenticated by Horie Tomohiko (1907-1988), a renowned calligraphy expert in Japan. Born in Tōkyō in 1907, Horie worked for the Tōkyō National Museum from 1934 to 1969. He then became a professor at Nishogakusha University, where he taught the history and theory of East Asian calligraphy and published many books on the subject, which remain a benchmark today. He certified the scroll inside the wooden storage box in January 1975.