Upon arriving at Kyo-u, Michinoku Province, a traveling Buddhist priest (waki) and his companions (waki-tsure) meet a man (shite of act one) holding a ‘nishikigi’ - a decorated bough, and a woman (tsure of act one) holding a ‘hosonuno’ - a narrow piece of cloth. The priest asks the man and woman about the two objects and they reply that the ‘nishikigi’ and the ‘hosonuno’ are the specialties that their region is best known for. Furthermore, the man recounts a tale based on a poem dedicated to the decorated bough and narrow cloth. There is a custom in the hamlet of Kyo-u that a man should place a ‘nishikigi’ in front of his beloved's house. If the woman takes the ‘nishikigi’ inside, then his love is requited.
Once, there lived a man who, for three long years, would go every night and place a coloured bough in front of his beloved's home. The man lies now, buried together with his thousand boughs in a mound called the Brocade Mound, deep in this mountain. The man and woman lead the priest to the mound and disappear inside it.
A local man (ai) passes by and, responding to the priest's request, tells the story of the origin of the Brocade Mound. He finally recommends that the priest hold a memorial service. At night, as the priest is chanting sutras near the mound, the ghosts of a man and a woman (shite and tsure of act two) appear. They express their gratitude for the prayers.
Suddenly, the mound transforms into a lamplit house from times of old. As the woman is sitting inside weaving a ‘hosonuno’, the man comes to woo her by leaving yet another ‘nishikigi’ bough by the gate. The man recounts the story of his unrequited love. However, on the last night of the third year, his efforts finally came to fruition. Happy with the outcome, the man performs a dance of joy. Eventually, the priest wakes up from his dream, to hear only the autumn wind blowing over the ancient mound.
The play "Nishikigi" bears the name of the decorated bough traditionally used in the northern Michinoku Province. According to the custom, a man should place a ‘nishikigi’ - a 30 centimetre-long bough painted in five colours - in front of the house of his beloved. The prop of the bough that the man holds in the play is wrapped in crimson silk. The "hosonuno of Kyo-u" is a narrow strip of woven cloth that used to be produced in Michinoku Province. The woman enters the stage holding a folded ‘mizugoromo’ (a costume used in Noh) as a stand-in for the strip of ‘hosonuno’.
"Nishikigi" is based on an episode from the poetry storybooks "Toshiyori-zuinō" and "Shūchushō". All throughout the play, Japanese ‘waka’ poems revolving around ‘nishikigi’ and ‘hosonuno’ are woven into the libretto.
There is a poem in the play that goes as follows: "The painted bough has rotten standing. The ends of the narrow strip of fabric would not meet before my chest". It reads as a man's lament over his unrequited love - the ‘nishikigi’ rots away as it had been placed in front of his beloved's house, and the ends of his ‘hosonuno’ don't meet, just like the woman refuses to meet him.
Right before the man's dance of joy, there is another poem as well - "Now, as the painted boughs have grown to a thousand, I can look into the bedroom where no one dares to peek". Through this poem, the man who had previously lamented his unrequited love, now expresses his joy over his love finally coming to fruition.
In the second act, there is a dreamlike scene where the prop representing the Brocade Mound is likened to the woman's old house. A heartbreaking scene depicts the man's despair - he fastens his ‘nishikigi’ bough on the prop and knocks with his fan, but the only response he gets is the chirping of the insects.