Noh TriviaQuestion and Answer

Question147 What sort of old customs live on in Noh plays?


The custom of grouping three major mountains in a region and making them the object of worship is established across Japan, where mountainous areas occupy more than 70 percent of the land. Examples include Dewa Sanzan (the three mountains of Dewa) and Kumano Sanzan (three mountains of Kumano). In the province of Yamato (Nara Pref.), Yamato Sanzan consists of Mt. Kaguyama, Mt. Unebiyama and Mt. Miminashiyama.

In ancient times, the three mountains of Yamato were the subject of poems. In the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry, Man-yōshū (literally, “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”), compiled in the 8th century, the poem “Kaguyama wa Unebi wowoshi to Miminashi to...” was inspired by a legend in which the three mountains are given human forms. In the fable, Mt. Unebiyama (a woman) and Mt. Miminashiyama (another woman) fight over Mt. Kaguyama (a man).

The Noh play “Mitsuyama” (literally, “The Three Mountains”) is based on the same legend. It is set in the age of “night-visitation marriages,” when married couples didn’t live together but husbands visited their wives. In the story, a man called Kiminari, who lives near Mt. Kaguyama, visits two women on alternate nights: first wife Katsurago, who lives near Mt. Miminashiyama, and second wife Sakurago, who lives near Mt. Unebiyama. Before long, the man starts to visit second wife Sakurago more frequently. Grieving over his change of heart, Katsurago drowns herself in a pond. Later, she appears as a ghost before a priest on a journey and asks for a memorial service. As the priest is holding the service, both Katsurago and Sakurago appear as ghosts. Katsurago vents her jealousy and regrets on Sakurago, slapping her with a branch of cherry blossoms. After Katsurago works off her grudge against Sakurago, the two spirits express the wish to find their way to Paradise by receiving a Buddhist blessing from the priest.

The act of a first wife venting her jealousy on a second bride is known as “uwanari-uchi” (literally, “slapping a second wife”). This actually existed as a custom from the end of the Heian period to the early Edo era. Although depicted elegantly in the Noh play, the custom grew more extreme as time went by, with women being accompanied by gangs and starting brawls.

(December. 28 2017)

illustration : Hiroko Sakaki

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