Many years ago, in a time when the land was wracked by famine, a baby girl was abandoned by her desperate parents. An elderly couple found the child and decided to raise her themselves. They were poor but good-hearted, and many were the nights that they went hungry so that the little girl could have food.
Years later, after the girl had grown up and the old couple had passed away, she heard some monks preaching in the town square. The monks were from Koya-san, the holy mountain, and they had come to raise funds to build a temple called the Okunoin above the cave of the great teacher Kobodaishi.
In particular the monks wanted people to donate lanterns to light the temple’s great hall.
The girl’s foster parents had been devout Buddhists, and she thought that it would be wonderful if she could send a lantern in their memory to shine forever in Kobodaishi’s temple. But she had no money for such a thing.
After thinking it over she cut off her long beautiful hair and and sold it, thus raising enough money to purchase a small unadorned lantern and send it to Koya-san.
(She could not deliver it to Koya-san herself because in those days women were not permitted to enter that holy place.)
When the Okunoin was finished dignitaries from all over Japan came to attend the dedication ceremonies. When they entered the Hall of Lanterns they were amazed. The wealthy merchants and mighty lords had all commissioned wonderful lanterns, wrought with delicate designs and inlaid with precious metals.
But the assembled notables all laughed when they saw how pitiful the girl’s small plain lantern looked next to the beautiful lanterns of the rich and powerful. Many said that this lantern was not worthy to help light Kobodaishi’s hall.
Suddenly a great wind blew through the hall, extinguishing all the lanterns except for the small plain one.
Upon seeing this the monks declared that this small lantern was especially blessed. Since that time, whenever the monks light the lanterns of the Okunoin they light the Poor Girl’s Lantern first, then light the other lanterns from its fire.