The Middle Years

     After the forty-nine day mourning period for her father was completed, Rengetsu left Makuzu-an. She held no official position at Chion-in. There were few Buddhist nuns in Japan, no nunnery to speak of, and at the small number of temples that had an abbess, she was typically a member of the imperial household who had taken vows late in life to serve at a temple sponsored by the emperor. And while there were some mendicant monks who survived by begging, that was not an option for a solitary nun. Rengetsu had no place within a Buddhist organization.

     Thus, she needed a livelihood. Perhaps a martial art instructor, but it took money and official support from a samurai domain to open a dojo. Since Rengetsu had been playing go from the time she was a little girl, she was talented. She in fact had attracted  some students but they were overwhelmingly male, much more interested in her beauty than her skill. Rengetsu realized that it would be difficult to have male students take her seriously. Further, Rengetsu was not yet accomplished enough to attract poetry or calligraphy students.

After Rengetsu moved to the Okazaki district of Kyoto, she wrote in her autobiography that pottery-making was the answer to the problem of making a living. However, there were dozens of kilns in Kyoto selling high-quality ceramics based on centuries of craftsmanship. Rengetsu only learned the rudiments of pottery making—all her training was informal, perhaps trying her hand at pottery making when she was living at Makuzu-an  and later learning from an amateur grandma potter in the Awata kiln district—so she could not compete on the technical level. However, Rengetsu thought that if she incised her original poems in a pleasing manner on inexpensive pottery that would attract customers. She wrote in her autobiography, “My pottery was poorly crafted and unskillfully made but I did my best to make each piece unique.”  Rengetsu’s first efforts were simple things such as small teapots and cups made for the sencha tea ceremony, flower vases, sake cups, plates, and the like.  She composed this poem:

Humble Teabowl by Otagaki RengetsuTaking my amateur,
Crude little things
To sell–
How forlorn they look
In the market place!

However, since Rengetsu’s unadorned, unpretentious pottery actually stood out among all the other highly polished and colorful professional pieces, Rengetsu-yaki* was a big hit, and pottery-making turned out to be Rengetsu’s primary means of support the rest of her life.

Unfortunately, the earliest known examples of Rengetsu-yaki date from her mid-fifties. Of course, her cheaply made pottery did not have much of a shelf life and was easily broken but it would be interesting to compare her initial efforts at pottery-making with pieces made in later years.

The entire period of Rengetsu’s life from her mid-forties to her mid-fifties is a mystery. Even though Rengetsu lived frugally, it is difficult to believe that in her early years she made a sufficient amount of money from pottery-making to survive. There is speculation that during this time she received financial support from the Otagaki family or other patrons.

Since Rengetsu was uncommonly beautiful—a widespread rumor in Kyoto was that she had once been a courtesan in the pleasure quarters—she was constantly being accosted by men, even after she became a nun. The story goes that Rengetsu went so far as to pull out her front teeth to make herself less attractive. Even that did not work. Rengetsu continued to be widely known as the “beautiful nun in Kyoto” throughout her life. Nomura Boto (1806-1867) wrote about a visit to Rengetsu: “I heard that she was in her mid-seventies but she looked fifty. She is still very attractive, even as a nun. She must have been a stunning beauty when she was young.”

During her middle years, she learned Shijo painting. It has been stated that during this time Rengetsu was the student and then the live-in lover of the Shijo painter Matsumura Keibun (1779-1843). It may seem surprising for a nun to have a love affair, but in Japan the vow of celibacy was never taken seriously—in the Jodo Shinshu Sect priests have openly married since the 13th century. Although the love affair between Rengetsu and Keibun never appears in official biographies, it was reported as matter-of-fact by both Kuroda Koryo and Tomioka Tessai, the two people who knew Rengetsu the best.

Rengetsu had close contact with other Shijo painters such as Nakajima Raisho (1796-1871), Yokoyama Seiki (1792-1864), Kishi Renzan (1804-1859) Mori Kansai, (1814-1894), and Shiokawa Bunrin (1808-1877). At one time or the other, Rengetsu did joint works with all those artists. Rengetsu also did a number of joint works with Reizei Tamechika (1823-1864), who was one of the revivers of the Yamato-e style of painting.

Rengetsu may have had extensive training in Shijo painting in her 40s but in poetry composition it was pretty much like her pottery-making; that is self-taught and in her own style. Regarding poetry composition Rengetsu wrote, “I did not have the leisure to study poetry composition at length, nor could I find a good teacher that I liked.” Naturally, Rengetsu had learned the basics of poetry composition from her father and during her service at the castle, but she did not study the art in depth at any particular school.  Rengetsu read widely in classical and modern poetry, and she wrote that she was influenced by the theories of such poets as Ozawa Roan (1723-1801), Kagawa Kageki (1768-1843) and later by the famous Shinto priest, nationalist scholar and poet Mutobe Yoshika (1798-1864), but her poetry cannot be characterized as belonging to any one tradition.

There are examples of Rengetsu’s calligraphy dating from her forties. Although her brushwork was nothing special then, Rengetsu developed  a distinctive brushwork  so original as to be unique; it does not show the influence of any previous calligraphic style. There is nothing like it. A primary reason that Rengetsu acquired such a strong steady hand in her brushwork is that from the beginning she was incising her poems in wet clay. That requires extraordinary strength and perfect placement. The characters have to be clean and legible. In short, during this middle period, Rengetsu learned to make and market pottery, how to paint, studied poetry in various styles, refined her calligraphy, and established contacts with many of the artists, literary figures, scholars, and political activists of the day.


*Rengetsu-yaki is the name applied to pottery made by Rengetsu herself and with the cooperation of helpers in her workshop.

Leave a Reply