Made up of local volunteers, the hinoyojin fire patrol fosters a sense of community spirit by reminding residents about fire risks and keeping an eye on the neighbourhood.

The volunteers in Akasaka-Higashi's fire patrol group are a mix of residents and office workers. (Photo: Akasaka-Higashi 1 and 2 Chome Chokai)

During my trip to Tokyo last December, I was invited to a friend’s apartment for dinner. She lives in Kiyosumi-Shirakawa, a neighbourhood known as a shitamachi or “lower city”, an old district with retro vibes spilling out of its mom-and-pop shops and narrow alleyways.

Midway through our dinner, we were distracted by the distinct sound of wooden objects being hit twice by someone on the street, followed by a theatrical cry of “Hinoyojin!”. ...