Searching for Rengetsu 2014

I have been searching for Rengetsu for two years. The Edo-jidai poet (1791-1875) saw the Meiji restoration usher in a new world in 1868 when she was 77 years old. She wrote this commemorative poem, translated by John Stevens. It is indeed timeless and could be speaking to us today.

hinazuru no       yuku sue tooki       koe kikeba       kimi ga chitose o       utau narikeri

Hear the timeless         cry of a young crane —         It is an ode to         the dawning of a new age       to last 1,000 generations.

Last year, I visited Chion-in Temple where she lived with her adoptive father Otagaki. As I strolled the vast grounds, I wondered which building did Rengetsu live in. Out Arashiyama way, she spent some time at the Nonomiya Shrine where princesses trained as saigu. She lived in the Okazaki district of Kyoto, known for the Okazaki Shrine. Rengetsu spent her final years making pottery at the Jinko-in Temple.

A second book on Rengetsu has been published by John Stevens. If the first one was good, this one is even better. There are more details about Rengetsu’s life and a large collection of her poems in Stevens’ inimitably sensitive translations.

I have just returned from my second Rengetsu trip and this is my report. I was in Kyoto the day before the autumn equinox and the faithful higanbana flowers were in vermillion bloom.

The earlier book mentioned that Rengetsu, who could not afford to buy good clay from Shigaraki, would dig for clay in Kaguraoka hill. As I pondered the location of Kaguraoka, (probably near Okazaki), I came across a map showing the Munetada Shrine located on Kaguraoka road. The green area is Yoshida mountain, the site of Yoshida Jinja. At the Munetada shrine, a staff member confirmed that clay was found there. Kaguraoka is within walking distance of Okazaki to the south.

My Kyoto friend learned that Kyoto University found some artifacts when ground was being dug for the new hospital. Among them were Rengetsu pots, found where the CAT-scan center is now located, and it is said that she once lived there.

This friend well knew the name of Rengetsu since her chado tea ceremony teacher has a number of Rengetsu teacups, and there had been a Rengetsu exhibition at the Nomura Museum. My friend learned that there is a Rengetsu Chaya, a tea shop, on another site where Rengetsu lived. It is on a charming street near Chion-in. In the yard of the chaya is a huge camphor tree. Perhaps Rengetsu knew this tree. The tea shop was closed at this hour of late afternoon, since they serve tofu dishes for lunch. We peeked into the yard and found it to be quite lovely. Here are some photos.
DSC02811 DSC02813      DSC02815DSC02821 DSC02823

We decided to walk over to the Chion-in temple and look for Makuzu-an where Rengetsu lived, according to Stevens. We studied the map of the temple grounds, seen here in closeup. And we saw Makuzu-an! The name appears on the roof of the large building in the center, while the twin buildings of Makuzu-an are seen below it. So we entered the grounds and inquired. As we neared it, a dozen or more people were leaving. They apologized that the building was closed to visitors that day since they were preparing for a tea ceremony the following day and invited us to return. Knowing that we would not soon return, I took some photos. I was here last year! I remembered the kagura stage and the shrine building. Rengetsu’s building is behind them, with the shiny roof. Once again, the first autumn colors on the momiji were beginning to show.


 Deep in the mountains

a single branch of maple

near the eves of my hut

marks the beginning

of the days of autumn.


Thanks to John Stevens Sensei for these translations.