In the 10th century, during the reign of Emperor Daigo, a group of imperial envoys (waki, waki-tsure) embark on a pilgrimage to Chikubu Island. They arrive at the bank of Lake Biwa and look for a passing boat that can take them to Chikubu Island. As they wait, a fishing boat with an old man and a young lady (shite and tsure of the first act) passes by. The old man introduces himself as a fisherman from around Lake Biwa, and when the envoys ask him for a ride to Chikubu Island, he welcomes them aboard. They cross the lake, marvelling at the peaceful spring view.
Upon arriving on the island, the woman and the old man guide the envoys to the shrine of the goddess Benzai-ten. The envoys think it strange of the lady to accompany them, since women are not allowed onto Chikubu Island, but she explains that Benzai-ten does not discriminate between men and women. In the end, the lady reveals herself to be the Benzai-ten of Chikubu Island and disappears into the sanctuary. The old man admits to being the lord of Lake Biwa (Dragon God) and also disappears into the lake's waters.
A priest (ai) serving at the shrine of Benzai-ten appears and welcomes the imperial envoys.
He shows them the treasures of Chikubu Island and, after entertaining them with a short dance that imitates diving from a cliff, returns home.
When the night falls, the ground starts shaking and the goddess Benzai-ten (tsure of the second act) appears, illuminating everything with her radiance. The music that Benzai-ten plays permeates the ether, and as if drawn to it, the Dragon God (shite of the second act) emerges from the bottom of Lake Biwa. Benzai-ten and the Dragon God demonstrate their divine powers and bless the whole land. In the end, Benzai-ten returns to her shrine and the Dragon God goes back to the bottom of the lake.
"The lake reflects the green shadow of the forest. Fish in the water seem as if they are climbing up the trees. When the moon rises above the lake, will the moon rabbit hop upon the waves?" This is one of the paragraphs describing Chikubu Island. There are no flatlands around the island, and its strange shape looks like a granite block covered in lush woods sticking out of the water.
Named after this Noh play, the image of a rabbit hopping on waves is well known as a "Chikubu-shima Pattern". In the play, the choir sings about the rabbit that lives on the Moon, but likening the crests of the waves to white rabbits usually means that strong winds are blowing above the water.
In a way, the protagonists of the play, the Dragon God and Benzai-ten, may be taken as symbols of the severity of the elements, eternally unfathomable to the human mind.
The whole play "Chikubu-shima" depicts the scenery of Lake Biwa in spring. The serenity and grandeur are demonstrated through a direction full of musical and visual diversity.
The focal point of the first half of the play is the scene in which the imperial emissaries marvel at the view of Lake Biwa in spring while sailing on the boat. Another highlight of the first act is the "Cliff Diving" dance performed by the priest of Benzai-ten. It is interesting to hear his imitation of sneezing, as the sound differs from its modern equivalent.
In the second half of the play, Benzai-ten performs the gorgeous ‘tennyo-no-mai’ (celestial maiden dance). Subsequently, the Dragon God performs his version of ‘mai-bataraki’ - a dance demonstrating the might of a god or demon.
In the Kita school of Noh, there is a special direction called ‘nyo-tai’, in which shite is in the role of Benzai-ten and performs a dance called ‘gaku’. It is considered to be the creation of the lord of the Hikone Domain - Ii Naosuke. The play was popular with the people of Hikone, since it employs many local references and features.