This gloating world’s
Dirt and grime
And all is purified
By the waves of Kamo River.
~Rengetsu age seventy-eight
A wonderful example of Rengetsu’s calligraphy, this scroll is item #62 on page 51 in the catalog, Black Robe, White Mist: Art of the Japanese Buddhist Nun Rengetsu.
chiri mo nagori mo
kiyoki ni kaeru
kamo no kawanami
The Kamo River (Kamogawa) is the jewel of Kyoto. Since the river flows through the middle of the city, it is the center of many important events and rites celebrated during the year. There is a long promenade along the riverbank where one can stroll and enjoy the cherry blossoms in spring and the crimson maple leaves of autumn. During the heat of summer restaurants and cafes along the river open balconies so that their customers can cool off while they take refreshment. (Today, one of the cafes is a Starbucks.)
Kamo River is known for its pure water that could be used for drinking until modern times. Water from the river was employed extensively in the tea ceremony, tofu production, soba broth, Kyoyuzen dyeing, and the like. People perform purification rites in the running water in order, as it says in Rengetsu’s poem, to wash away the dirt and grime of their bodies and minds.
There is an interesting story regarding the unique qualities of Kyoto water:
The artist Honami Koetsu was summoned by the Shogun to his castle in Edo (Tokyo) and requested to do some calligraphy. After Koetsu mixed the ink and water on the ink stone, Koetsu did a few test strokes. He put down the brush, and told the Shogun, “Edo water is not good enough.” The next time Koetsu came to Edo, the Shogun made sure that water from Kyoto had been prepared.
Most of the year, the Kano River runs shallow, no more than a meter or so at its deepest, but during rainy season it can flood severely. In 1936, Kamo River overflowed its banks, sweeping away most of its bridges, inundating 24,000 homes, and drowning twelve people. After that, thorough water-control was implemented and today the river is not much more than a trickle—in fact, there are stepping stones that make it easy to cross the shallow water.
In addition to Rengetsu’s waka, many poems have been written about the Kamo River.
Here is one by Matsuoka Shiki:
Even though the night grows deeper
In the first breeze of autumn
No one by the Kamo River
And the Shijo Bridge
Wants to return home.