During his journey through China, the holy priest Jakujō (waki), arrives at Shakkyō - a natural stone bridge in Mt. Shōryō. On the other side of the bridge supposedly lies the Pure Land of Bodhisattva Monju. After hearing the legend about the bridge from a local, Jakujō decides to cross to the other side.
Deep in the mountain, Jakujō is approached by a young boy (shite in act one) collecting wood (or, depending on the direction, an elderly woodcutter). The narrow bridge spans a steep valley, on the bottom of which a river flows with great force. The young boy describes the perilous nature of Shakkyō and tries to discourage Jakujō from crossing the bridge. At the end, the boy tells Jakujō to wait for a miracle to happen and suddenly disappears.
Just then, several mountain hermits (ai) serving Bodhisattva Monju appear at the bridge. They start a drinking banquet as they praise Shakkyō's magnificent scenery. The hermits eventually notice some Shishi beasts (half-dog, half-lion) approaching and leave in a hurry.
Before long, many Shishi beasts (shite, tsure) appear on the stone bridge and, after frolicking among the blooming peony flowers and dancing energetically, they return to their assigned place by the throne of Buddha.
he Noh "Shakkyō" is a typical festive play, its highlight being the Shishi beasts' dance in celebration of good luck and fortune. It is a gorgeous play involving many visual stimuli such as the special masks called ‘Shishi-guchi’ and the vibrant costumes, as well as the beautiful props that represent peony flowers. The play's first half, which focuses on the description of the stone bridge rising over a steep gorge, is usually abbreviated, and only the second half of the play is performed in order to amplify the festive mood. This form of performance is known as ‘han-nō’, or half-Noh.
The bridge Shakkyō, which connects the human world with the Pure Land of Bodhisattva Monju, is surrounded by blooming peonies. The highlight of the play is the Shishi beasts' dance performed amidst this splendid scenery. The so-called Shishi-dance involves movements unique to this play, such as leaning on the railing of the ‘hashigakari’ bridgeway or vigorously shaking the mane on the head. The tuning and rhythm also differ from other Noh plays. The performance employs various secret and difficult techniques, so the actors cherish it as one of the most important plays in Noh's repertoire.
Soon after its creation during the Muromachi Era (14~16c.), the performances of "Shakkyō" temporarily ceased, but the play was revived in the beginning of the Edo Period (17~19c.).
This is probably the reason why the play has so many variations. As special directions go, there are the "Ō-jishi", "Shishijū-nidan-no-shiki", "Ren-jishi", "Wagō-ren-jishi", and many others. There are also variations in the number of Shishi beasts, as well as the colour of their manes. The white-maned Shishi has an imposing and dignified demeanour, and is considered to be the red-maned Shishi's parent. The length of the dance and its movements may differ depending on the variations in the number and colour of the Shishi, and various props such as a mountain, a thatched hut, a stone bridge or peonies may be used.
This play became the basis for the famous Kabuki dance "Ren-jishi".