Having fulfilled his duties in Kuse-no-to, Tango Province (now northern Kyoto Pref.), an official (waki) from the court of the retired Emperor Kameyama and his servant (waki-tsure) embark on a journey back to the capital. While traveling along Wakasa Road, the official decides to stop by Mount Himuro. There he encounters an old man (shite of act one) and a younger man (tsure of act one) guarding the icehouse where the blocks of ice, annually presented to the Emperor, are stored. Prompted by the official, the old man recounts various stories about the icehouse and how the tradition of sending ice to the Emperor’s court was started.
The ice in the icehouse doesn’t melt even in summer only because of the Emperor’s powerful authority. After promising the official to show him the Hitsuki Festival (The festival during which ice is sent to the imperial court) later that night, the old man disappears inside the icehouse.
Priests (ai) from the nearby shrine, dedicated to the deity of Mount Himuro, approach the official, and after narrating the story of the origin of the icehouse, start praying for snow. They dance and frolic about, acting as if they are rolling a big snowball through the snow that has piled up.
At night, a celestial maiden (tsure of act two) appears and performs a graceful dance. Finally, the deity Himuro Myōjin (shite of act two) emerges, holding a piece of ice from the icehouse with both hands. A blizzard rages all around, covering the whole mountain with snow and ice.
Casting shade, Himuro Myōjin spews out cold water and blows out a cool breeze to prevent the Emperor’s ice from melting, encouraging the porters to hurry on their way to the capital.
“Icehouse” is a play that is suitable for summer. The image of the blocks of ice offered to the Emperor during the summer has a refreshing effect on the audience.
An icehouse, or ‘hi-muro’ in Japanese, is an underground room used for storing the ice made in midwinter. In ancient times, before the invention of freezers, it was common practice to cut out pieces of the ice that had formed on the surface of lakes and ponds, then dig a hole on the shady side of a mountain and place the ice blocks inside, surrounded by a thick layer of straw. The ice was then presented to the court in June. In the first act of the play, the old man acts out the process of collecting snow with a wooden rake and turning it into blocks of ice.
In “The Pillow Book”, there is a description of Sei Shōnagon eating shaved ice sweetened with syrup, which indicates that ice was a precious commodity for the people at that time.
It is believed that Mount Himuro, the scene where the play is set, is a mountain located in the current Yagi District of Nantan City in Kyoto Prefecture. During the Middle Ages, there lived imperial officials who were in charge of providing the court with ice.
There are many highlights during the second act, such as the celestial maiden’s dance and the energetic ‘mai-bataraki’ sequence in which the deity Himuro Myōjin shows off his might. The contrast between the movements of the two deities brings the second act to life. In “Himuro”, the dignified presence of the deity Himuro Myōjin, whose will keeps the ice from melting during the summer, is associated with the grace of the Emperor and the blessing that is his reign. In ancient times, people in the capital highly valued the ice, and their hearts were filled with gratitude for the Emperor’s peaceful reign and the deities’ benevolence.