Since we mentioned the Japanese peasants' traditional winter occupation of making and selling those conical rice-straw hats in the last tale (Old Man Bloom), I thought that it would make a good springboard for this other story, in which the kindness of childless old people is rewarded by the gods (there's no unkind foil to this jiisan and baasan, but still, the good deed rewarded is what counts):
Mukashi mukashi, once upon a time, there lived an old childless couple in a cottage thatched with rice-straw, with a few chickens and a little rice pad of their own, on the slope of a dormant volcano (whether it was the Fuji-san or another volcano, the sources differ depending on who is telling the tale). During the winter, both to keep themselves busy and earn some money, they would make these conical hats, called "kasa" in Japanese, from the straw left after threshing the rice and mending the thatched roof, and the old man would sell the hats in the nearby market-towns.
One such winter evening, when the whole countryside round was blanketed in white and every treetop but the pines' was frosted and bared, the husband returned home at dusk with the five hats he had left, those hats he meant to sell another day, strapped to his back. A sixth kasa he wore on his own head to keep out the cold and the sleet, keeping his own head warm; for, after all, it's from there that most of the body warmth leaves the system, and he was a pretty sensible, aside from kind-hearted, good old man.
Now on the uphill path, right outside the old country shrine, stood a half dozen Jizos in a row. And you, dear reader, may wonder what on Earth these Jizo things are, so let me explain: a Jizo is a god, or more or less of a god (actually, also a past life of Buddha) depicted as a shaven child monk, or novice, known as the patron god of children dead and alive, even stillborn and adopted infants. So he takes good care of all children, especially orphans and those who have died young, giving them all tender loving care that the latter need in the afterlife. He wears also a long wand or staff in his right hand, and in fact each of these six Jizos carried one, to alert the bugs around of his approach, and have them retreat in advance, for a Jizo is so kind he will not even step on a line of ants (That's how you can identify a Jizo if you bump across one: by the childhood, the shaved head, and the wand held in his right hand; in fact, the bug-warning staff is the most impressive thing I've heard a deity can carry; since it's not a weapon but rather a life-saver!).
Now having been childless for decades had never allowed a grudge against the god Jizo and the six Jizo statues within the pious, good-natured hearts of the old folks. In fact, seeing the storm clouds approach and sensing the blizzard ahead, the old hatter-farmer thought the poor things (though made of volcanic stone, the god Jizo dwelled within every single one of them) would surely freeze to death... what better than giving them a few gifts, without asking for anything in exchange? And so, as he trudged homeward, he hatted each of the Jizos with one of the hats he carried on his back. When he came to the sixth Jizo, the only hat the old man had left was the one on his own head... but still, he put his own hat on the last Jizo's head and hastened home, to return by a friendly wife and a warm fireside right before the snowstorm set in.
"You must be freezing!" his wife told him, looking at him with concern in her eyes and wondering what had become of his hat; had the wind knocked it off? So her hubby told about the good deed he had done by hatting all six Jizos, and then the old lady gave him a hug and a kiss, thanking the gods for having married someone so kind-hearted, no matter how humble and childless were the lives they led.
After a frugal meal of rice and vegetables, both spouses went to bed, but, in the middle of the long, cold, dire winter night, they were awakened by the sound of children singing. Surely, they thought, the village children have come to give us a New Year surprise! Yet, as the voices grew clearer and clearer, the old folks could hear distinctly that the children sang:
"When the storm was coming,
right before it came,
the hatter, with such noble aim,
gave us six good straw hats,
one for each head:
we should reward him now in bed!
Thank the hatter and his wife, very much indeed!"
Imagine the old folks' surprise when they went up to the threshold and found all six Jizos, with smiles on their stony faces, greeting them right outside! All six little gods carried their bug-warning staffs in their right hands, even though in winter there were no bugs to warn of their approach, and each and every one carried a different gift in his left hand: a bottle of distilled sake, a pair of kimonos of silk brocade, a batch of freshly made moon cakes, a little casket full of gold koban, a pair of snug and soft warm winter blankets, and decorations made from bamboo and pine branches to ring in the New Year!
The old couple warmly and sincerely thanked the Jizos and invited them into their humble home. At sunrise, the little stone gods returned to their place outside the shrine, where they still stand, yet from that day on there has never been a winter during which the locals have hatted all six of those Jizos, which has become a regional tradition.
REMARKS ON THIS TALE:
- This tale, as seen before, lacks the unkind person foil, like Kakezara or the wealthy young couple in Hanasaka Jiisan (Old Man Bloom), typical of the kind-and-unkind pattern, but still what matters is the meaning, the universal message that kindness and generosity are never wasted. Like Shakespeare's Cerimon, this hatter demonstrates the worth that charity, learned or not, aye bears.
- It also reminds me of Die Sterntaler (The Star Doubloons), gathered by the Grimms, and The Frangipani Maiden; in both of these tales, a humble homeless orphan girl gives away all of her attire, one piece of clothing at a time, to strangers in a direr need than that of herself, during a cold winter night... and is subsequently richly rewarded.
- On the Jizos' bug-warning staffs I have already spoken, and obviously praised the idea, as a Lemony narrator in the tale, as you can read above.
MUKASHIBANASHI I HAVE DONE SO FAR AND THOSE LEFT TO TELL:
Benizara and Kakezara
Kaguyahime (Princess Kaguya)
Momotaro (Peach Taro)
Grampies with Wens (Kobutori Jiisan)
Old Man Bloom (Hanasaka Jiisan)
The Hatted Jizos (Kasa Jizo)
The Tengu's Cloak
Mount Crackle (Kachikachiyama)
The Macaque Vs. the Crab (Saru Kani Gassen)