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Saitama neighborhood 'Johnson Town' offers taste of life in suburban America

The American suburban layout of Johnson Town is seen in Iruma, Saitama Prefecture, on March 23, 2018. (Mainichi)

IRUMA, Saitama -- A simple 15-minute walk from Seibu Railway Co.'s Irumashi Station can transport visitors to a neighborhood that looks not unlike a movie set for suburban America.

The area was developed to house U.S. military families following World War II and went out of style with their withdrawal, but with the gathering of unique residents and shops, the neighborhood began to come alive again about 10 years ago.

The history of what eventually became "Johnson Town" goes back to 1936. Tokyo real estate agent Yoshio Isono bought the roughly 660,000 square meters of what was farmland at the time. After that, the nearby military air force academy (now the Air Self-Defense Force's Iruma Base) was occupied by the U.S. Air Force, which named it Johnson Air Base. The U.S. military houses were built for the families of the personnel at the base. However, after the U.S. withdrew from the area, the houses aged and the neighborhood fell into decay.

Should the buildings be destroyed or kept? That was the question that Isono's son Tatsuo, 79, was faced with in 1996. Tatsuo couldn't forget the richness of the American culture he had encountered living with his father in one of the Johnson Town houses, so he decided to revive the area to its former glory. He renovated the houses that were still standing while also building new modern residences in the same style, and the neighborhood was reborn as "Johnson Town" in 2009.

Jun Iwashita stands in the former U.S. military house built over 60 years ago where he lives in Iruma, Saitama Prefecture, on March 23, 2018. (Mainichi)

Currently, some 130 households fill the 79 renovated original and newly built houses. A resident since July 2014, Jun Iwashita, 45, is a professional guitarist and blues researcher. Twenty-five years earlier, he performed in one of the U.S. military houses and he began wishing that he could live in just such a place. He saw a listing for one of the houses online, and when he went to visit the property, he instantly fell in love not only with the solid black floors and wooden deck, but also the atmosphere of the neighborhood as a whole. He promptly moved in.

There are no walls between the houses in Johnson Town, and there is little distance between residents as well. Those who live there naturally become acquaintances, and interactions with the other artistic residents of Johnson Town inspire Iwashita. He was invited to a blues concert held in Los Angeles, California, last year, finally realizing his dream of performing in the U.S.

"The biggest draw of this community is the 'people,'" said Iwashita. "An environment where you can naturally discuss your dreams with one another is the magic of Johnson Town."

But it isn't just Johnson Town's residents that have their own flavor to them. The various shops in the area also have their own unique colors. British vintage item shop Cotswolds opened eight years ago, after the owner was struck by the unique scenery of the area that evoked the feeling of being transported to another country entirely. The shops also actively work together, collaborating to host events regularly. Cotswolds' owner Yoko Ichimura said, "We would like to continue organizing events that visitors will enjoy."

Another business attracting attention from even those beyond Saitama Prefecture is the restaurant Fukumistu-do that opened in February of last year. The shop is popular for its vegetable-filled curry that doesn't use any oil or flour. "There are many people who will come and help you when you're in a pinch," said Fukumistu-do owner Masando Miura. "It's probably our collective love for the town that fosters the momentum to liven up the area." Johnson Town administrative office head Akio Isono added, "We are aiming to create a barrier-free community where it is easy for anyone to live while preserving the abundant nature and unique buildings of the area."

Restaurant "Fukumitsu-do" owner Masando Miura invites visitors to enjoy the shops as well as the scenery of Johnson Town while holding the shop's popular vegetable curry dish, in Iruma, Saitama Prefecture, on March 23, 2018. (Mainichi)

In 2015, Johnson Town won the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism urban landscape prize in the urban space division. The town was praised for a private company creating a cityscape overflowing with charm while preserving the cultural heritage of the occupied U.S. military base housing.

To preserve that culture, all of the residences are rental only, and the application process is unique in that after viewing the interior of a property, one must sit down for an interview with owner and real estate company president Tatsuo Isono. All houses are equipped with security systems to protect the safety of residents, and the interior of the houses are free to be renovated as the occupants like. Lately, the residents have been working together to increase opportunities in which Johnson Town inhabitants can mingle, such as celebrations for children entering school and Christmas parties.

On the other hand, however, Johnson Town has also become popular as a prized location for taking photos for Instagram. On weekends and holidays, one can see people wandering around taking photos of the area, and there have even been some issues with visitors finding themselves in private residential areas. The town administrative office has been posting educational information online as well as putting up blockades to discourage entry.

"This is a residential area where people are actually living," said Akio Isono. "We would like people to show basic manners while enjoying the town."

(Japanese original by Tomoko Kagawa, Tokyo Regional News Department)

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