Ōtagaki Rengetsu is possibly the most famous female poet of 19th Century and also known for her excellent skills in calligraphy and pottery. She was born as 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 Jōdo (Pure Land) school temple in Kyōto. In 1798, having lost 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.
With only 33 years, she already went through some fateful years of her life with the loss of two husbands and all of her five children. After that, she decided to shave her hair and take vows, adopting the name Rengetsu (Lotus Moon). She lived together with her stepfather near Chion’in temple. After his death in 1832 Rengetsu began to make 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 already gained large recognition during her lifetime far beyond the borders of Kyōto.
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, describing a scene of gazing the moon from a riverbank in Hirakata village by night. Hirakata is a city that lies at the Yodo river, which connects the cities of Kyōto and Ōsaka. The river is therefore a central route for exchanging goods and highly frequented by uncountable boats - even at night. Observing the boats and the moon from the riverside, Rengetsu poetically connects the movement of the boats with that of the moon, as if there were traveling together:
"Moon at the Riverside"
My eyes float past
the reaching and pulling
on a riverboat...
walking with the moon
here in Hirakata village.
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...