The Earliest Years

Rengetsu was born on the eighth day of the first month of Keisei III (1791) in the Sanbogi pleasure district of Kyoto, the love child of an unnamed courtesan and Todo Kinshichiro Yoshikiyo (1767-1798)  a high ranking retainer of Iga Ueno Castle.  Within a few days of her birth,  Nobu was adopted by Otagaki Teruhisa* and his wife Nawa. They named her Nobu. In August of the same year, Teruhisa was appointed a sacristan  of Chion-in, the huge headquarter temple of the Jodo Sect located in Kyoto. This appointment carried with it a steady source of income and was hereditary. Both her adoption and Teruhisa’s appointment were likely arranged by Nobu’s natural father Yoshikiyo’s.

Chionin Temple
Chion-in Temple

Around six years of age,** Nobu’s parents started schooling her in literature and poetry. Teruhisa, a martial artist,  gave her basic instruction in swordplay. Since Teruhisa was well known as a go player, he introduced Nobu to the game at a young age. She eventually became a very skillful go player in her own right. Nobu was raised in the religious atmosphere of Chion-in. The primary practice of the Jodo Sect is nembutsu, the constant repetition of the name of Amida Butsu. Amida is the Buddha of the Pure Land that has vowed to save everyone who sincerely calls upon his name. Regardless of one’s  station in life or occupation no one is outside Amida’s grace. In her childhood morning to night, Nobu was surround by the chant, Namu Amida Butsu–“Let everyone be saved by the power of Amida Buddha!”

In 1798, at age eight Nobu was called to serve as a lady-in-waiting at Kameoka Castle. This summons may have been due to one of Yoshikiyo’s last requests—he died at the age of thirty-one in August of that year. Yoshikiyo wanted Nobu to go there for a samurai education. Another theory is that Nobu’s birth mother was living at Kameoka Castle and she wanted to be with her daughter. At any rate, in her eight-year stay at the castle, Nobu learned proper deportment, was educated in the arts of calligraphy, literature, poetry, tea ceremony, flower arranging, dancing, and drilled in the martial arts. Nobu became exceptionally adept in handling the halberd, the sword, the kusarigama (sickle and chain), and the use of jujutsu. By the precocious age of sixteen, Nobu was held to be at the level of menkyo-kaiden (instructor) in the martial  arts. Since there was a close connection between Iga Ueno Castle and Kameoka Castle, she may even have learned some ninjutsu. The Iga Clan of her natural father was famous for the many ninja in its ranks and ninjutsu may well have been part of the martial art curriculum of Kamaeoka Castle.

One example of Nobu’s martial art prowess:  Once when Nobu was out on an excursion with some of the other young ladies serving in the castle, they were assaulted by a group of drunken men. After Nobu thrashed a couple of them with arm locks and throws, the men beat a hasty retreat. Throughout her life, she had the reputation of being a master martial art.

During her stay at the castle, Nobu suffered  the first of many tragedies. Nobu had an older stepbrother named Katahisa. The four other children of Teruhisa and Nawa , all male, had died previously at early ages. In 1803, when she was twelve years, both her stepbrother Katahisa (age twenty) and her stepmother Nawa (age forty-three) passed away.


*In her two-page autobiography written when she was eighty-four, Rengetsu reads the characters of his name as 光古 “Mitsuhisa.”  However, those characters can also be read “Teruhisa.” Other references call him “Teruhisa,” but give the characters as 輝古.  Japanese names can be read in many different ways. It is a very confusing practice. Teruhisa is the name used in this account.

**All ages are reckoned Japanese-style that considers a person one-year old at birth.

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