Before we begin, I should explain what a jizou is. In short, a jizou is a Buddhist statue meant to guard children, especially children who died entirely too young. The proper way to refer to them is Ojizou-sama, and you can see these statues all across Japan, especially at temples and graveyards.
And now, our tale, which begins on a cold winter’s day, and as all Japanese folklore will have it, it begins with an old man and his wife.
They had no money and no food, and so they made some straw hats, kasa, in order to take to town to sell so that they could have a decent meal for New Year’s. The old man left with five hats in tow, hoping that if he sold them all, it would be enough.
It was snowing, and on his way, he stumbled across six jizou lined up in a row whose heads were getting covered. He gently brushed off the snow and paid his respects, and then he continued into town and attempted to sell the straw hats.
The day passed from morning into the afternoon, and as the sun died down into the evening and the streets emptied of potential customers, the old man had not managed to sell a single hat. Dejected and knowing that they were not to have a fine New Year’s meal after all, he made his way home.
He stumbled upon the jizou again, who were once more covered in snow but deeper than before. The old man wiped the snow away again, but as the snow fell harder and harder, he knew that it would not be enough. Without anything else to offer to them, he placed hats on each of the statues but one. Without another hat to offer, he pulled out a towel and wrapped the jizou‘s head with it. He bid the jizou a Happy New Year and returned to his wife at home.
At first, she was ecstatic. “Did you sell all the hats?”
“No,” he said, “I couldn’t sell a single hat, so I gave them away to the Ojizou-sama, who were covered in snow and looked cold.”
“That was a kind thing you did,” she said, and they settled down with their final pieces of food–some tea and pickles–and went to bed.
In the middle of the night, the old couple was awaken by strange voices singing, “Where is the house of the old hat-seller?” The voices grew louder and stronger until finally, there was a loud thud at the door, and the voices gradually drifted away. The old man tiptoed out of bed to see what had happened, and as he opened the door, he saw rice and miso and money and vegetables and many other treats so that he and his wife could have a wonderful New Year feast.
When he looked up, he saw the jizou wearing his hats and his towel disappearing into the distance, saying, “Thank you for the hats, and Happy New Year.”