The holy priest Myōe (waki) of Togano-o (Kyoto Pref.) has been longing to visit the sacred places of Buddhism in China and India. Since he will be away from Japan for a while, he has decided to go on one last pilgrimage to Kasuga Shrine (Nara Pref.).
At Kasuga Shrine, Myōe encounters an elderly shrine keeper (shite of act one) who, upon hearing about the reason behind the priest's pilgrimage, tries to dissuade him from embarking on such a long journey. The old man says that the deity of Kasuga Shrine does not want Myōe to leave Japan.
Furthermore, since Buddha has already entered Nirvana, there is no way Myōe could hear Buddha preach, even if he goes all the way to India. He should rather venerate Kasuga as if it were a genuine holy Buddhist site.
Perceiving the old man's words as a divine message, Myōe decides to call off the journey. He asks the old shrine keeper about his true identity. The man introduces himself as Tokifū Hideyuki. He promises to show Myōe the whole life of Buddha - as if Mount Mikasa were India itself. With these words the old man vanishes from sight.
A cleric (ai) from Kasuga Shrine, who had seen a divine dream, approaches Myōe in order to communicate its sacred message to him. As the cleric narrates the origin story of Kasuga Shrine, the field of Kasuga starts glowing in golden light and all flowers and trees merge together to form the shape of Buddha. Just then the Dragon Deity of Kasuga (shite of act two) appears. He shows Myōe the Holy Eagle Peak - the place of Buddha's sermons, attended by the eight Great Dragon Kings as well as many other dragons and monarchs. Assuring himself that, having seen Buddhas whole life, Myōe has abandoned the idea of a journey to China and India, the Dragon Deity disappears into the depths of Sarusawa Pond.
"Kasuga-ryūjin" is a spectacular play in which, in order to stop the holy priest Myōe from his pilgrimage abroad, the Dragon Deity recreates Buddha's sermons at Holy Eagle Peak and presents Kasuga as the Pure Land of Buddhism. The plot is based on the idea of fusing the Japanese local Shinto beliefs with the teachings of Buddhism (originally introduced from India), in which all Shinto deities are depicted as manifestations of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
The waki actor plays the role of the holy priest Myōe (1173-1232), who was a priest of the Kegon sect of Buddhism and lived in the early Kamakura period.
Myōe was the one who restored Kōzan Temple (Sakyō district of Kyoto) and was a well-known devotee of Kasuga Shrine. The story how the Deity of Kasuga dissuaded Myōe from going on a pilgrimage to China and India can be seen in various works of literature such as "Kokonchomonjū" (A Collection of Notable Tales Old and New) and "Shasekishū" (Sand and Pebbles).
The focal point of the first half of the play is the narration of the elderly shrine keeper trying to dissuade Myōe from leaving Japan. The solemn and intense chant is truly worth listening to.
The second half of the play revolves around Buddha's life and especially his sermon at Holy Eagle Peak which can be seen in the preface to the Lotus Sutra.
An important point of interest is the energetic dance of the Dragon Deity. The worship of dragons, typical for Kasuga Shrine, has a strong presence in the play - the main focus being the congregation of dragons listening to Buddha's words. There are special directions that give more emphasis to this particular aspect of the play. In the special direction "Ryūjo-no-mai" (The She-dragon's Dance) a tsure actor appears in the role of a she-dragon (in Kanze School), and in the special direction "ryūjin-zoroi" multiple tsure actors appear in the roles of various dragon deities (in Kongō and Hōshō Schools).