Just around this time last year, I was with a group of fathers of young children, sitting around a "shichirin" traditional small charcoal grill set up in an elementary school playground in Ageo, Saitama Prefecture.

The occasion was for making "bekkoame" tortoiseshell candy with their children.

I did not know any of the participants. But as we all stirred the pot of sugar over the fire, everyone started chatting like old friends.

The organizer of this event was Tadashi Nishikawa, 50, who heads a community-building nonprofit organization called Hands-On Saitama.

A father of two daughters, Nishikawa said: "Dads are usually made to feel redundant at school events. They are at a loss for what to do. All they do is snap pictures of their kids. But if there is fire, they've got their place."

It has been quite a while since I last saw a bonfire in a city. Vacant plots of land are a rarity nowadays, and public parks have signboards proclaiming, "Bonfires Strictly Forbidden."

Nishikawa noted: "Local authorities hate having to deal with residents' complaints about the smell of smoke or possible fire hazards. But there is no need to involve officials. So long as residents are acquainted with those making a bonfire, they can complain to them directly, if necessary. In fact, residents can be invited to join."

Initially, Nishikawa's group held potato-roasting events around a bonfire. After a decade or so, the group started using shichirin. Other activities they have organized include a swimming pool filled with raked fallen leaves and an outdoor "karuta" traditional card game around a "kotatsu," a low table with a built-in heating element and covered with a quilt, to keep everyone warm. They have all proven popular.

This past spring, Nishikawa published a book titled "Asobi no Umareru Basho" (Places where play is born). It chronicles his years of searching for ways to create "play spots" in his community.

He has also set up "Nihon Shichirin To" (Japan shichirin party) to promote events using the charcoal grill. The online “political party” is purely for fun, and its platform contains playful puns on shichirin.

Autumn is a busy time for Nishikawa and his friends, and this year is no exception. Even though his own daughters have graduated from elementary school, he would never refuse requests from the parents of pupils who go there.

The date of the next shichirin event has just been set.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 19

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.