While traveling around Japan, a Buddhist monk (waki) is caught in a heavy snowfall and has no choice but to seek lodging for the night in Sano area, Kōzuke Province (present-day Gunma Prefecture). At first, the owner of the house he stops at, Sano-Tsuneyo (shite), refuses to give him shelter because of the poor living conditions inside. However, Tsuneyo's wife (tsure) intervenes and eventually convinces him to let the monk stay. Tsuneyo invites the monk into his house, but since he is destitute, he is unable to entertain him adequately. Out of hospitality, Tsuneyo uses his treasured bonsai plum, cherry, and pine trees as firewood to warm up his guest.
The reason for Tsuneyo's poverty was because his land had been embezzled. His lord, Saimyōji (Hōjō) Tokiyori, had gone on a journey to practice asceticism, which rendered Tsuneyo unable to take any legal action. But even though he is poverty-stricken, Tsuneyo exhibits the spirit of a true warrior - he is prepared to be the first to arrive and die in battle in the event of an emergency in Kamakura. Though he regrets having to part with such an extraordinary man, the traveling monk eventually continues on his journey.
Soon after this event, Tokiyori returns to Kamakura from his ascetic journey and orders the warriors from all over the Kanto region to gather there. All warriors hurry to fulfil his order. Tsuneyo, dressed in his shabby armour, also heads for Kamakura.
Upon arrival, Tsuneyo is suddenly summoned by Tokiyori. It turns out that the traveling monk from before had in fact been Tokiyori. Lord Tokiyori praises Tsuneyo for keeping his promise and immediately rushing to his aid. He reinstates Tsuneyo in his property, adding three new plots of land named after the potted plum, cherry and pine trees as a token of his gratitude for using them as firewood. Overjoyed, Tsuneyo returns to his hometown.
With its beautifully crafted story about the samurai of Kamakura, "Hachinoki" is a rather popular play. It is considered a masterpiece among the humanistic Noh plays. Noh is usually associated first and foremost with the subtle and unfathomable profundity known as ‘yūgen’, but "Hachinoki" manifests the exact opposite of this image. With its extremely specific and dramatic subject, the play is rich in theatrical elements, unlike most other Noh plays.
The first half of the play takes place in Sano. The first words of the shite, "Ah, how the snow falls..." refer not only to the heavy snowfall during the scene, but also to the heart of the samurai warrior who must maintain his dignity even when reduced to abject poverty.
Tsuneyo is portrayed as an intellectual with a refined taste for classical poetry, humming the verses of Hakurakuten, as well as the poems of Fujiwara-no-Teika. This man of culture sacrifices his treasured bonsai trees to use as firewood in order to entertain his guest, the traveling monk. This series of scenes is called "Takigi-no-dan" (The Firewood Act) and is considered the centrepiece of the play. The word ‘hachinoki’ means "potted tree" or "bonsai tree". A prop representing Tsuneyo's potted trees is used onstage.
During the second half, the scene shifts to Kamakura. Here, the traveling monk from the first half appears as Saimyōji (Hōjō) Tokiyori. This is a rare example of the waki changing his appearance in the second half of the play. The role of the waki in both the first and second acts of "Hachinoki" is quite demanding. The role of Tokiyori in the second half is particularly difficult because it requires the confidence and dignity typical for a man of power. As a whole, "Hachinoki" is a difficult play that demands a lot of skill from the shite and waki actors.