A Traveling Monk from the Eastern Provinces visiting the Kawara-no-in Villa in the Rokujō area of the ancient capital (today Kyoto) meets an Old Man carrying water buckets. The Monk questions the Old Man, who claims to be drawing brine even if the sea is far from there. The Man explains how, long ago, the Minister of the Left, Minamoto no Tōru, wished to reproduce the famous scenery of the salt kilns of Michinoku right here in the garden of the Kawara-no-in Villa. As the Old Man talks, he reminisces the olden days at Kawara-no-in. Later, he shows the Monk various mountains surrounding Kyoto. Finally, the Old Man announces that he will start drawing brine, before disappearing in a cloud of sea spray.
The Monk asks a Local Man to tell him the story of Minamoto no Tōru and of the Kawara-no-in Villa. When the Monk explains he just met a mysterious old man, the Local Man says that it must be the ghost of Minamoto no Tōru and urges the Monk to offer prayers in his memory.
As the Monk falls asleep, the Ghost of Minamoto no Tōru appears in his court garb and dances under the moon, remembering the joys of the olden days. As dawn breaks, he disappears.
The coastal landscape between Shiogama and Matsushima (Miyagi Prefecture) is one of the most beautiful and celebrated scenic sights in Japan. Early Heian period aristocrat Minamoto no Tōru (822-895) was among the greatest enthusiasts of the salt kilns from which the name Shiogama derives. He went as far as reproducing the landscape of Shiogama in the garden of his residence, the Kawara-no-in Villa in the sixth quarter (Rokujō) of Kyoto. Poems in the Tales of Ise collection describe how Tōru had seawater drawn at Naniwa (Osaka) and carried all the way to Kyoto. Tōru was the son of Emperor Saga (786-842). He served as Minister of the Left, one of the most important court offices, since the age of 20. Though he was born a prince, he never became Emperor, which caused him great distress. Instead, he found consolation in his villa. However, the residence was abandoned after Tōru died at age 74, and quickly fell into ruin.
The author of Tōru is Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443), who created a play pervaded by an atmosphere of refinement, displaying Minister Tōru’s nostalgia for his mansion, where he used to spend time dancing and enjoying parties under the moonlight. The highlight of the first act is Tōru’s (appearing in the shape of an old man) bittersweet remembrance of the olden days. The figure of the old man wandering the ruins of the house he used to inhabit reminds of the impermanence of human existence. Later, the Monk and Tōru name several famous locations of the ancient capital before Tōru disappears. The highlight of the second act is Tōru’s ghost enjoying the ancient splendor of his villa, and elegantly dancing as he used to do in the olden days.
There are several performance variants for this play, most of which feature changes in the dance taking place in the second act. In the kutsurogi variant, Tōru moves to the bridgeway, where he seems to be listening to the music played by the instrumentalists. In the maigaeshi or jūsandan no mai variants, Tōru’s dance is longer and more elaborate than the standard version. In the shaku no mai variant, a part of Tōru’s entrance is shortened. Similarly, he exits earlier, while the chorus is still singing. Before dancing, he gestures, symbolizing the elegant dances once performed at Kawara-no-in.