This information and story came to me recently via an email. Make of the story what you will.
I’d like to share with you this old Japanese story. This is one of those children’s stories that generations of Japanese grandparents used to tell their grandchildren.
In Japan, the statues of Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha are commonplace, often at the roadside. They may be solitary, but often we see six of them, one each for the six realms (hell, hungry ghosts, animals, ashuras, humans, gods) in which Ksitigarbha is at work.
Once upon a time, there was a poor couple, an old man and a woman. The New Year’s Day was just around the corner, but they didn’t have money to buy rice cakes for the New Year. The old man had made five straw hats during the evening after a day’s hard work in the field. “My dear old lady, I’m going to the market to sell these straw hats, and I will buy some rice cakes,” said the old man. But he couldn’t find any buyers. It was snowing hard, and there weren’t many people in the market. He couldn’t sell a single hat. He was sad, thinking how disappointed his beloved wife would be. On his way home to the village, he walked past six statues of Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha. Snow was piling up on their head and shoulders. “They must be feeling cold in an evening like this,” thought the old man, and he put the hats on the statues’ heads. He had only five straw hats, and he didn’t have any hat left for the sixth statue. “I’m very sorry but I have only five hats,” said the old man to the last statue. Then, an idea came to his mind, “Well, please wear my old straw hat. I’ve been wearing this for some years, and it is a bit worn out, but it is better than nothing.” It was New Year’s Eve. The old man went home, without wearing his hat, and his wife greeted him at the door. “My dear, I’m glad you managed to sell all of your hats, but did you have to sell your own hat?” “No, no, I couldn’t sell any,” said the old man, and explained to his wife what he had done. His wife was very happy to hear what her husband did. “You did a very good thing, my dear,” said the wife. Just after midnight, they heard some singing outside. They opened the front door, and found some rice cakes at the doorstep. “How strange! Where did these rice cakes come from?” In the distance in the snow storm, they could see six statues of Ksitigarbha marching their way back, all wearing a straw hat and singing a song.
In another version of the same story, the old couple was visited by six monks wearing straw hats on New Year’s Eve. The monks brought them some rice cakes for the New Year. The old man recognised that the sixth monk was wearing his old straw hat, and then he knew that the six monks were not of this world but the six statues of Ksitigarbha.