From English Teacher to Curator

 From English Teacher to Art Curator –  

or, How one man was seduced by a Japanese nun.

John Walker likes to kick start his day with carbs and coffee. Black. Steaming.

It’s an auspicious beginning – I can relate to this man. It’s freezing out, and it took me two minutes to strip off and pile up my hat, scarf, gloves, earmuffs, coat and two sweaters. 

I sip my European frothy coffee, looking for a taste of romance. Just bitter.

I press record. “Let’s start at the beginning…”

The beginning is in early 19th century Kyoto, Japan – the same city in which John and I sit now. Kind of.

“…Who was Rengetsu Otagaki?”

“We think she was the illegitimate child of the lord of the Iga Ueno fiefdom and a geisha. In any case, she was adopted by the Otagaki family as a young girl. In her early life she suffered a series of family tragedies which led her to renounce the world and become a nun initiated into the Pure Land order of Buddhism. She lost at least four and probably five children in quick succession – the oldest one most likely around the age of seven. Many of them died as infants. She also lost two husbands as a young woman.”

How to follow that? I can’t, and incongruously fall back on a stock question: “What’s her most famous poem?”

“One written while traveling through a place called Saga. She is turned away from an inn and has to spend the night outside, yet still manages to see grace in the act of unkindness.”


'Turned away at the inn' inscribed on that common symbol of hospitality – a cup

‘Turned away at the inn’ inscribed on that common symbol of hospitality – a cup

Sitting in a coffee shop on a cold January morning, where for a few hundred yen I get to stay on the warm side of the glass for an hour, I wonder if I would have been able to look on the bright side of having to sleep rough. 

Who am I kidding pretending to wonder? Of course I wouldn’t. 

To mask a jolt of awkward truth, I reach for a napkin and wipe cappuccino off my lip – a cappuccino in which I’m certain Rengetsu would easily have found romance, while I can only try. 

I quickly move on to technique.

“What makes Rengetsu Otagaki important to the history of Japanese poetry?”

“What makes her so significant is that she was one of the first to push the traditional boundaries of waka – that is, Japanese poetry.  Traditionally, waka had a set form and vocabulary. Back in the Heian Period in Japan – 794 to 1185 – the rules for writing waka were fixed. You couldn’t really write about a bat, for example, even though bats are common in Japan.” 

“But Rengetsu was innovative with the rules of content?”

“She was. She also used her emotional state as subject matter. Rengetsu turned the lens inward to talk about the sadness caused by the tragedies of her early life, about time passing, and to lament the aging of her body. In this way, she was one of the early bridges between traditional waka and modern tanka. This turning in of the lens is also one of the foundation stones of the watakushi shosetsu – the ‘I’ novel.”

“So what for you is the keynote poem that would sum up Rengetsu Otagaki?”

“A poem about being at Arashiyama.”

Arashiyama is in the western foothills of the Kyoto basin.

Inscribed on a painting – 'My body new'

Inscribed on a painting – ‘My body new’

John explains, “Arashi means ‘storm’ and yama ‘mountain’. Rengetsu uses the Storm Mountain to represent the cares of the secular world. Under its shadow, she looks at the flowers in the early light of dawn – dawn light is equated to the Buddha’s mercy – and feels that through her entry into Buddhism she has been able to leave the cares of the world aside. She feels as if she literally has been given a new body…”


                    My body new

                         my heart reborn

                              free of the cares of the world

                         here at Mount Arashi

                              flowers in the early dawn.


“… This feeling was apparently very important to her, because she wrote the verse again and again on various objects.”

 I sip my coffee and wonder. The poetry inspired by the tragedies in Rengetsu’s life touches on timeless human themes of lose and how to cope with suffering, but why did a modern Californian become so interested in this particular 19th century nun?

An ordinary teaspoon and its box lid invested with significance by the inscription of 'Chinese and Japanese' by Rengetsu Otagaki

An ordinary teaspoon and its box lid invested with significance by the inscription of ‘Chinese and Japanese’ by Rengetsu Otagaki

“Two Swiss friends of mine were interested in her work, and knowing I was interested in antiques generally, asked me to find some for them. That was November 2004, and I was teaching here in Kyoto at the time. They were satisfied with the pieces I found and asked me to find more, and then other people did, and before I knew it I started to see the attraction to her work. I had always been interested in things that were spiritually a little deeper, and always tried to divine those currents in the craftsmanship of the objects I would find. Rengetsu makes the spirituality of objects direct by inscribing them with her poems.”



                         and Japanese–

                              many treasures

                         piled high

                              soon to arrive

                         in the harbor of dreams 


“Do you have a piece in your collection that you were particularly pleased to get?”

“Yes. There’s a letter I have that Rengetsu addressed to an old man. In his garden the man had collected most of the plants mentioned in the Kokin Wakashu, a 9th century anthology of waka. There is a profusion of plants in the Kokin Wakashu, and as a well-read person Rengetsu would have known about them. She would never have seen a lot of them, though. It was not like there was an Internet then where she could just look up a picture of a flower on Wikipedia. So when Rengetsu had a chance to visit the garden, she was delighted, and afterwards wrote a letter telling the old man how much she had enjoyed the experience. It really made her very happy.”


“And now you’ve put together an exhibition of Rengetsu’s work.”

“Yes, at the Nomura Museum in Kyoto from March 8th to April 20th.”

“What was the most difficult thing about setting up an exhibition like this?”

“Like any enterprise it’s got to be financed somehow, and it was challenging to put together the support to make it happen. You need a lot of persistence, and following your heart is not always easy. Of course, we all have to do things that are not necessarily ‘heartful’, but there’s got to be a way that you can carve out a little time and a little space to do something that really moves you. It’s really the only thing that’s going to lead you to any satisfaction in this life.”

“Do you have a favourite piece in the exhibition?”


John pauses. I’m reminded of a film I saw where a restaurant exec asks the server what is her favourite thing on the menu, and she says “everything” and he says “right answer”.

“Well, I will answer that question,” John says, “but only for this very moment, because the answer will change by tomorrow. But right now, it’s a painting of birds – plovers – standing on the Kamo River.”

Rengetsu_plovers_picThe Kamo River flows through the heart of Kyoto, and is just a five minute walk from where John and I are sitting in the coffee shop.

“Rengetsu inscribed a poem on the painting, and the reason it’s my favourite at this very moment is because it is winter, and I want to be reminded that despite this bitter cold, nature is teaming all around us – rivers going on their way, birds going about their business. I want to be reminded that even though it’s cold, the world is still beautiful.”


John is brimming with enthusiasm and wants to keep talking…

“Rengetsu means ‘Lotus Moon’, you know.” 

…but with that last poem I know the interview has to be over. For I faintly heard, for the briefest moment, the plovers cry, and fleetingly felt the frost on Rengetsu’s arms. 

Making my excuses, I genuinely thank John while piling on two sweaters, a coat, hat, scarf, gloves and earmuffs. I’ve suddenly realized I have to go – I’ve a romantic date with a 19th century nun waiting for me down by the banks of the Kamo River, and I’d hate her to leave before I get there.

I drain the dregs of my coffee. Not as bad as I’d thought.


Otagaki Rengetsu: Poetry and Artwork from a Rustic Hut

by John Walker and Kazuya Oyama


This hardcover book contains 119 artworks on 208 high-quality pearl finish pages, poems in English, Romanji and the original Japanese, a biographical gloss, and accounts of 33 episodes in Rengetsu’s life.  Priced at ¥7,000 for the duration of the Nomura Museum exhibition (March 8th ~ April 20th, 2014) and thereafter at ¥10,000 (US$100), it can be purchased through the ‘Contact’ page of the Rengetsu Foundation Project website at

Copyright Glen Edmonds
Images copyright John Walker
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