A traveling monk visiting Suma Bay in the Settsu province (today Suma Ward in Kobe) notices an unusual pine tree and asks a local man to tell him its story. The local man says that this ancient pine is a memorial to the two saltmaker sisters, Matsukaze (Pine Wind) and Murasame (Autumn Rain), who were loved by Heian period poet Ariwara no Yukihira (818-893). The local man then urges the monk to offer prayers for their souls. Soon the autumn sun sets, and the monk looks for shelter in the saltmakers’ hut.
As twilight falls, two women appear on the shore, lamenting the lonely life of the saltmakers. The two mention famous sea locations, then pour the brine into a bucket and enjoy watching the moon reflecting in it. Afterwards, they put the bucket on a cart and bring it back to their hut. When the monk in the hut recites Yukihira’s poems and mentions the names Matsukaze and Murasame, the two women weep, revealing that they are in fact the spirits of Matsukaze and Murasame. They recall the time they spent as Yukihira's lovers.
The spirit of Matsukaze dons the robe Yukihira gave her as a keepsake before he left them and returned to Kyoto, then dances full of nostalgia. When the dance reaches its climax, the spirit of Matsukaze recites Yukihira’s famous poem, “Though I may leave for Mt. Inaba, / famous for the pines / covering its peak, / if I hear you pine for me / I'll come straight home to you.” (Trans. Peter Macmillan in One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each. Columbia U.P. 2010). Overwhelmed with nostalgia and confused by her own feelings of love and longing, Matsukaze mistakes the pine tree for Yukihira, and embraces it. Finally, the two sisters ask the monk to pray for their souls before disappearing, leaving nothing behind them but the wind in the pines.
Courtier and poet Ariwara no Yukihira was the elder brother of the famous literate Ariwara no Narihira. His poems are contained in the ninth-century anthology Kokin Wakashū (Collection of Japanese Poems of Ancient and Modern Times).
Each scene of the play has been carefully crafted, with sophisticated poetic allusions, unique chant rhythm, and melodious musical accompaniment. Nō performers hold this play in the highest regard. One of the highlights of the play is the scene in which the two saltmakers return to the shore under the moonlit sky, draw salt water, pour it in a bucket, and put it on a cart they pull with a rope. This scene includes a section called rongi, in which the spirit of Matsukaze and the chorus exchange lines, featuring a particularly complex chant passage. The passage mentions numerous scenic seaside locations related to saltmaking: Ojima, Chika, Akogi Bay, Ise Bay, Futami Bay, Narumigata, Naruo, and Ashiya, creating a sophisticated texture of allusions, a literary device called utamakura (‘poem pillow’).
Matsukaze wears the hat and robe Yukihira left as a keepsake, then sings about her passionate love for him. In this scene her sister Murasame also plays a key role, as she incites Matsukaze while at the same time warning her that Yukihira’s love will never return. Anciently, the play Matsukaze was also called Matsukaze Murasame.
This dance expresses Matsukaze's frenzied love. In this play there are two instrumental dances, the medium-tempo dance chū-no-mai, and the shorter ha-no-mai. Between the two dances Matsukaze recites Yukihira's poem, “Though I may leave for Mt. Inaba, / famous for the pines / covering its peak, / if I hear you pine for me / I'll come straight home to you.” This poem features kakekotoba, a poetic device playing on homonyms such as matsu, a Japanese word that may signify 'pine', or 'wait'. Yukihira promises his love, and leaves the poem as a keepsake, yet it is this very keepsake that prevents the two sisters from freeing themselves from their attachment to Yukihira. In particular, Matsukaze's delusion is so strong that she even embraces the pine tree, symbolizing Yukihira.
Matsukaze's instrumental dances have numerous performance variants. In the mitome variant, at the end of the ha-no-mai Matsukaze points the fan at the stage property representing the pine tree standing downstage center.