The setting is an old hot springs inn deep in the mountains of the Hokuriku region of northwestern Japan. The set has sections representing the inn’s entrance, guestrooms (a room for men on the 1st floor and women on the 2nd floor), a bath changing room and the hot spring bath room, which occupy the four sides of the revolving stage, and in the middle is a courtyard garden. At times during the play there is narration in an elderly woman’s voice.
Scene I. An autumn afternoon. A man in black named Ichiro and a dwarfish old man named Momofuku arrive at the old inn in a hot spring spa carrying a number of pieces of luggage. The two are performers of puppet plays and they come to perform at the request of such inns. One of the guests of the inn, and old woman named Takiko tells them that there is no staff working at the inn now, but since there is no bus going back, she recommends that they should stay at the inn for the night.
Scene II. Ichiro leaves Momofuku in a guest room and goes out to check the time schedule for the bus. A man named Matsuo, who has suffered from failing eyesight due to an accident and is now staying at the hot spring inn, returns to the room to find Momofuku there. Matsuo begins to tell him about the fate that has befallen him. When Ichiro returns, he tells Momofuku that they have no choice but to spend the night at the inn. Matsuo tells them that the only person in the inn now is the “Sansuke” (the man who takes care of the hot-spring supply, cleans the baths and scrubs down the backs of the guests at the bath).
robes are two women named Fumie and Iku who work as geishas in the hot springs town. Takiko tells them about the two puppeteers who have come to the inn. In the (2nd-floor) room, the two geishas begin practicing on their
(banjo-like stringed instrument). Matsuo finds an opportunity when no one is around to go through the father and son’s baggage. As Matsuo shows Ichiro to the hot spring bath, he says that he wishes he could see their bodies.
Scene III. Excited by the sight of Momofuku getting into the bath, the Sansuke gets flustered. Matsuo also gets excited as he peers at Ichiro undressing.
Scene IV. Momofuku is stretched out in the bath. Matsuo says he would like to see the puppet show, but Ichiro ignores him. Momofuku, who they thought was sleeping, suddenly says to Matsuo, “The “heart” that you are hoping to find doesn’t exist anywhere,” which causes him to suddenly leave the bath as if fleeing.
As he leaves, Takiko comes in and tells the Sansuke that she wants him to take care of Iku tonight. We learn that this inn still practices the old custom of having the Sansuke sleep with women who come to the hot springs in hopes of curing their infertility, in order to help them conceive.
Scene V. When Momofuku returns to the guest room, Matsuo finds himself again unable to control his curiosity [about the dwarf’s body] and flees the room hurriedly to go out for a walk.
Fumie and Iku return to the inn drunk. The two of them go to the men’s guestroom and beg for a demonstration of the puppets, but first they play their shamisen music for the father and son. Attracted by the sound, Takiko comes in too. Momofuku pulls out a puppet that is naked and has a deformed body. Momofuku talks to the puppet, and then as Ichiro begins to play on his
(Chinese fiddle), Momofuku starts the puppet dancing, and eventually puppet and master dance together. Fumie and Iku watch in amazement. Takiko expresses her gratitude for the performance. The Sansuke, who has been peeking in from the garden, is overcome with emotion to the point of tears.
When Matsuo returns and finds Ichiro about to go to sleep, he tells him that this inn used to be called
Mumyo no Yado
(literally, Ignorance Inn) but that the
is actually a Buddhist term that means “wavering” or “bemusement.” While stealing looks around to be sure he isn’t seen, Matsuo takes out the puppet, feels its shape and is startled to find its deformed shape, causing him to run out of the room in fright.
As Ichiro stands up quietly and begins to walk, the rotary stage begins to turn and bring to the audience’s view a succession of scenes: the Sansuke and Iku making love in the changing room; Matsuo drinking gulps of the hot-spring water; Fumie weeping and Takiko smoking a cigarette. As the walking Ichiro reaches the end of this succession of scenes the night sky is beginning to brighten with the light of dawn.
Scene VI. Early morning. The three women come to the bath. Matsuo is sitting limply. Ignoring him, the two geishas begin whistling together as a way of practicing one of their shamisen pieces.
The father and son come in too. Momofuku gives his puppet a bath. The women look on in surprise. Ichiro chuckles lightly. Matsuo vomits out the hot-spring water he had gulped too much of in the night.
The voice of the elderly female narrator says that the night before was uncommonly special. The sound of the hot-spring water flowing blends with the sound of heavy machinery and morphs in to the sound of cicadas.
Scene VII. Noon on a summer day. The inn looks the same as always. We hear the sound of a baby crying and see Iku giving her breast to nurse her child. The voice of someone saying, “We await your next visit to our inn,” blends into the sound of a Shinkansen bullet train passing by in the distance.
The curtain closes.