Yugyō Shōnin (waki), the leader of the Jishū sect of Buddhism, is traveling all around Japan together with his followers (waki-tsure) in order to spread the name of Amida Buddha. The sun is setting down. The priests are traveling north from Kazusa (Chiba Prefecture), past Shirakawa-no-Seki (Shirakawa City, Fukushima Prefecture), the entrance into the Tohoku region. As the men are about to start upon a newly built wide road, an old man (shite in act one) appears and guides them to the old road.
On the old highway along the river, there is a willow named Kuchiki-no-yanagi - "The Decaying Willow".
A long time ago, Saigyo (a famous 12 c. poet) stopped by and wrote a poem: "By the side of the road, in the willow's shade where a clear stream flows, I shall stop and rest a moment". Having said this to the priests, the old man disappears.
Shōnin approaches a local man (ai) who tells him that the old man must have been the willow tree's spirit. The priest decides to stay and pray to Amida Buddha.
Shōnin eventually falls asleep and the spirit of the Decaying Willow (shite in act two) appears in his dream.
The Willow Spirit is pleased that, thanks to the power of Amida Buddha, he is now able to attain Buddhahood even though he is but a mere plant. Reciting various Chinese and Japanese classics about willow trees, the spirit of the Decaying Willow performs a dance as a token of gratitude for Shōnin's prayer.
As the roosters' cry announces the coming of dawn, the Willow Spirit bids Shōnin farewell and quietly disappears.
A place called "Kuchiki-no-Yanagi" (The Decaying Willow) appears in the travelogue "Kaikoku-zakki" written by a monk who traveled around north-eastern Japan in 15c. Yugyō Shōnin, played by the waki actor in "Yugyō-yanagi", is the name of the chief priest of Shōjōkō Temple (commonly known as "Yugyō Temple" in Fujisawa City, Kanagawa Prefecture), which is the head temple of Jishū sect, also known as Kamakura New Buddhism. As the successor to the founder Ippen, he traveled all over Japan to spread the doctrine of salvation through chanting the name of Amida Buddha, or "Nenbutsu". Another play in which Yugyō Shōnin appears as waki is "Sanemori". "Yugyō-yanagi" was created by combining the existing place "Kuchiki-no-Yanagi" in north-eastern Japan with Saigyō's poem included in "Shin-kokin-wakashū", and the role of Shōnin as a waki.
The author, Kanze Nobumitsu, was also a Noh actor, active during the latter half of the Muromachi period (15-16c.). Nobumitsu wrote many superb Noh plays such as "Momijigari", but being a play created in his later years, "Yugyō-yanagi" has a very quiet atmosphere. While calling to mind Zeami's work "Saigyō-zakura", the play still has a very unique feel to it.
The spirit of the Decaying Willow is portrayed as a gray-haired old man wearing an ‘eboshi’ hat and ‘kariginu’ robe. It has a quiet and quaint presence.
On the other hand, there are many scenes that show the beauty and elegance of a willow tree, such as the narration of many willow-related old stories and the ‘jo-no-mai’ and the end dances. It is a work of refined elegance, despite its calm and quiet atmosphere.
In the special direction "Aoyagi-no-mai", the narration of the willow-related stories may be omitted, and the ‘jo-no-mai’ dance is shorter than usual. At the end of another special direction, "Kuchiki-dome", the Willow Spirit enters inside a prop representing an old mound with a willow on top - an ending open to interpretation.