Upon arriving at the capital Kyoto, a traveling priest and his companions (waki, waki-tsure) visit Tōboku Sanctuary. There they are enthralled by the beauty of the temple's blooming plum tree, and the priest asks a local person (ai) about the tree's name. The man replies that it is called Izumi Shikibu. As the men stand in awe before the tree, a young woman (shite in the first act) approaches them and tells them that the plum's real name is not Izumi Shikibu. The tree had indeed been planted by the poet Izumi Shikibu herself, who gave it the name ‘Nokiba-no-ume’ - ‘the Plum Tree by the Eaves’. The woman then tells the story of Izumi Shikibu and the plum, and at the end, after confessing to be the tree's true owner, disappears into its shadow.
The local person from before appears again, and in answer to the priest's questions tells the story of the connection between Tōboku Sanctuary's origin and Shikibu. He then expresses on his suspicion that the woman must have been the incarnation of Izumi Shikibu, and suggests that the priests spend the night in prayer for her soul. As the priests chant the Lotus Sutra, the ghost of Izumi Shikibu (shite in the second act) appears before them. Grateful for their prayers, she speaks of the excellence of the Japanese poetry, and through a graceful dance, compares the beauty and merits of Tōboku Sanctuary with the Pure Land of Amida Buddha.
Amidst the wafting fragrance of the blooming plum tree, Izumi Shikibu's ghost keeps dancing. As she remembers the days of old, her eyes brim with tears. Ashamed to be seen in such state, she disappears inside the temple's building. It had all been but a dream.
The focus of the play "Tōboku" (also known as "Noki-no-ume" in the past) falls upon the elegant dance of Izumi Shikibu, who is also famous for being the Bodhisattva of song and dance. As such, she performs the dance ‘jo-no-mai’ amidst the thick fragrance of the plum blossoms in the spring evening. The slow rhythm of the accompaniment and the beautiful dance create a delightful atmosphere. Another highlight of the play is the scene in which Shikibu praises the qualities of Japanese poetry and compares Tōboku Sanctuary to the Pure Land of Amida Buddha.
The protagonist of this play, Izumi Shikibu, is a late 10th c. poet. She is famous for her numerous love affairs and scandals. However, in "Tōboku" she is depicted as the Bodhisattva of song and dance, despite the fact that her carnal obsession contradicts the teachings of Buddhism. One might wonder why she is depicted as a Bodhisattva, instead of a ghost tormented by her attachments and passion. The explanation lies in an episode from her life - upon hearing Fujiwara-no-Michinaga chant the Lotus Sutra, she composed a beautiful poem, weaving the sutra's words into it. In the reality of "Tōboku", she became a Bodhisattva because of the merit of this deed.
Tōboku Sanctuary had previously been the residence of Empress Shōshi. Izumi Shikibu, who served as a court lady, spent her days there with the Empress. She served together with another famous court lady - Murasaki Shikibu, the author of "The Tale of Genji".