The Buddhist priest Saigyō (waki) is living a life of seclusion in the mountains west of Kyoto. It is mid-spring and the cherry tree growing in the garden of Saigyō's hermitage is in full bloom. The priest is happy that this year he can finally enjoy the cherry blossoms just by himself. He decides to impose a ban upon entering the holy precincts of the hermitage and orders his servant (ai) not to allow any visitors. Just then, a few men from the capital (waki-tsure) arrive for a cherry blossom-viewing picnic. At first, Saigyō tries to send them away, using the ban as an excuse, but seeing that the men have come all the way from Kyoto, he finally decides to let them in.
His plans for peacefully enjoying the cherry blossoms by himself shattered, Saigyō composes a poem: "People flock to admire the gorgeous blossoms. It is all the cherry tree's fault".
Later that evening, when Saigyō falls asleep, the spirit of the cherry tree (shite) appears in his dream in the form of an old man. The old man claims that the cherry trees are innocent and free of any blame. He is glad that he has entered the path of Buddha thanks to Saigyō. In his joy, he praises the many virtues of the cherry trees and lists various places famous for their blooming cherries.
Dawn approaches. Dancing quietly, the spirit of the cherry tree laments the end of such a beautiful spring night. Finally, dawn breaks and Saigyō wakes from his dream. The old man is nowhere to be seen - in his place, there stands the cherry tree with all its blossoms scattered on the ground.
Saigyō was a Buddhist priest famous for his profound love for cherry trees, to which he dedicated many a poem. This Noh play features some of those poems. It is believed that Saigyō built his hermitage near a Buddhist temple in the mountains west of Kyoto, which is the place where the scene is set.
The highlights of the play are the two dances performed by the cherry tree spirit in the second act. The first one, called ‘kuse’, has the spirit, in the form of an old man, dancing while listing the names of places famous for their blooming cherry trees.
The scene comes alive with the vivid descriptions of the changing sceneries sung by the old man under the blooming cherry tree. This is followed by a second dance, during which the spirit laments the end of the beautiful spring night as he dances in time with the beat. This dance is not as spectacular as the one before it, but still stands out because of its quiet elegance. This is usually a dance called ‘taiko jo-no-mai’, but depending on the direction the actor may perform the short ‘iroe’, or dance while holding a cane. This succession of dances is the main highlight of the play.
One of the most important aspects of the play is the fact that the spirit of the cherry tree is depicted as an old man. Upon closer inspection, the viewer will notice that the play incorporates many contrasting elements, playing them off of each other. The crowd of blossom-viewers, as opposed to Saigyō's solitude; the cheerful atmosphere of the cherry blossom-viewing party during the day, as opposed to the solemn quietness at night; youth and old age; motion and stillness - all these are elements juxtaposed in order to call attention to the transient nature of the cherry blossom and the brevity of life.