The former US personnel site rebuilt to attract tourists to Saitama

IRUMA, Saitama Prefecture—A suburban area tries to attract tourists by replicating the “casual” atmosphere of a time and place more associated with war.

The efforts of more than two decades have made visitors to the area, known as Johnson Town, in Iruma, Saitama Prefecture, feel like they are in a suburban residential area in the United States.

The streets here are lined with one-story American-style houses with peaked roofs and gleaming white wooden walls.

Prior to World War II, the nearby Air Self-Defense Force Iruma Air Base served as the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force Academy. After the war ended, the US Army turned the school into Johnson Air Base.

During the ensuing Cold War, the 25,000 square meter area, half the size of the Tokyo Dome, was inhabited by American personnel and their families.

After the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, Isono Shokai, a Tokyo-based company that now operates Johnson Town, commissioned residences in the city for the families of US military officials.

Like their counterparts on US military bases, Iruma houses had no steps between entrances and bedrooms. They were also equipped with flush toilets for added convenience.

The area remained deserted after Johnson Air Force Base returned to Japan in 1978.

But Isono Shokai started renovating the American-style structures there in the early 21st century. Today, the neighborhood is home to 160 residents and about 80 buildings, including homes and grocery stores.

Old fashioned houses resembling those built in the past have also been introduced to revitalize the neighborhood. No fences have been put up between the houses so residents can talk to each other casually.

With the recent increase in tourist numbers, a restaurant called Blue Corn has opened in a building in Johnson Town that was once the home of an American family.

American radio programs from the 1970s and 1980s play at the restaurant, which is open from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., with occasional closings. The interior is also full of dolls, novelties and second-hand clothes.

The most prominent item on its menu is the JT Burger set, which consists of a large American-style burger and a drink for 1,650 yen ($14).

The “open” burger allows eaters to see the beauty of the ingredients between the buns and combine the toppings on their own before taking a bite.

Mikie Takahashi, who lives with three family members in a renovated American-style house that doubles as a store, opened Mellow Food Cafe in 2012.

A pillar and a soap dish found during the dismantling of the walls of the house during DIY works are displayed as they are.

“This type of house is a legacy of the war and shows things that the Japanese had coveted,” Takahashi said. “I want to share the culture and feelings of those who lived here.”

Tatsuo Isono, 83, chairman of Isono Shokai, who spearheaded the redevelopment of Johnson Town, welcomes tourists to the area.

“We’d like people to enjoy the laid-back vibe and beautiful scenery while behaving well,” he said.

Johnson Town is located a 15-minute walk or three-minute taxi ride from Irumashi Station on the Seibu Ikebukuro Line. The station can be reached by train in about 40 minutes from Ikebukuro Station in Tokyo.

Motorists should drive 10 minutes along the 5-kilometer road from the Iruma Interchange on the Ken-O (Intercity Metropolitan) Highway to reach Johnson Town. Paid parking lots are available on the city grounds to accommodate 86 vehicles. Some stores offer discounts to motorists.

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