In praise of Culture Cafe Grandir and 5½ other reasons to visit “Little America”, Johnson Town, in Saitama Prefecture.
Johnson town, at the site of the former American military Johnson Air base, is a collection of stores, cafes & restaurants and private residences in Iruma City, Saitama Prefecture. It has been around since the end of the last century! However, its only become a point of interest in the last few years. I often get asked about it as it is a notable omission on the blog. But the truth is, I wasn’t particularly impressed by it on my first couple of visits. However, in the last quarter of 2021, I gave it another chance and revisited a few times. And a lot has changed, mainly for the better, at Johnson Town and while I wouldn’t rank it high on the list of things to do in Saitama prefecture, it does have its charms.
There is plenty of information in English on the web about Johnson Town. It was one of the reasons I never wrote about it on the blog. I recommend Japan* Visitor’s post for more information about the history of Johnson Town, which is very interesting. (*I have no affiliation to this website). However, many of the other articles online refer to the “nature” of the area, which has always puzzled me. As someone who lives in true rural Japan, to me Johnson Town has very little nature. You can count the number of trees in the housing estate on two hands! There are a few hydrangea that bloom in summer though.
Johnson Town does have a small park, Fujimi Park, to the South West, and a medium park Sai no Mori nearby North east of the housing estate. Sai no Mori is beside current day Iruma Air Base. Both of which were also formerly part of Johnson Air Base. It is convenient that Fujimi Park is adjacent to the estate, but it is completely surrounded by houses. Giving it a very urban feel, compounded by the amount of traffic in the area. Iruma City is almost as congested as Saitama City. To me, Johnson Town, is a built up suburban residential area. I personally would not recommend this area if you are looking for nature. But the two parks nearby are definitely bonus, especially as Fujimi Park has a nice playground for kids.
There’s no denying, even if you do just walk through Johnson Town, its a funny sort of place. A mix of private residences and hip cafes and stores. As well as cat cafes, dog cafes, a dog kindergarten (I kid you not), photo studios, hair dressers, dentist and others in the service industry. Areas where you can walk and / or take photos, areas where you can’t. The draw for me during the pandemic was the choice of cafes with outdoor seating areas. Honestly, I found them overpriced. Moreover, I felt a bit too exposed, for want of a better word, as other tourists stopped to take photos. Then I tried Cafe Grandir and found myself warming to Johnson Town a bit more!
6½ Reasons to visit Johnson Town!
1. A taste of America
If you have an interest in American clapboard houses, Johnson Town is one of the few places you can see original American housing in Japan today. It is often referred to as an American Village or Little America in Saitama. However, if truth be told, its really just the appearance of the housing estate that gives it that name. The American flags and other American paraphernalia in the village do add to the American feel. But only a few of the shops or eateries actually have American goods or food.
Restaurants with American food:
- Blue Corn (pictured above)
- East Contents Cafe
- Mellow Food Cafe
- Cafe Sainomori
There are also several other restaurants with different cuisine.
Stores with American goods:
- MiMiMom (pictured above)
- East Village Other
- American Lifestyle Airman
- C.E.L Store
There are about a dozen other stores, a few of them mentioned in #3 window shopping below!
2. Former resident of Johnson Air Base?
I’ve actually had a few comments on this blog (and other websites I write for) from former residents of the Johnson Air Base who are nostalgic for the place they grew up in. Others who have returned to revisit the Johnson Air Base have commented they are delighted to find it much like it was when it was still Johnson Air Base. If you are visiting Japan as a former resident of Johnson Air Base, I also recommend stopping by Sai no Mori across the road from Johnson Town. And also travelling to nearby Sayama Inariyama Prefectural park, which was once ‘Hyde Park’ another residential area of the former Johnson Air base.
3. Shopping / Window shopping
If you enjoy window shopping, I imagine this is a nice place to ramble. I wouldn’t be the biggest window shopper, but even I enjoyed having a poke around the shops which are quite different to what you see in a mall or a typical shopping street. As aforementioned there are some American goods stores. Furthermore, even a British and Finnish store: Cotswolds and Kiitos respectively. One of the more interesting shops in my humble opinion, is Woodvillage bags, where you can actually watch the tanner make custom made leather handbags. Woodvillage bags is in one of the few two storey buildings in the estate.
4. Outdoor seating
I’m reluctant to recommend Johnson Town for its food. Taste is very subjective really isn’t it? However, I would have absolutely no hesitation in recommending Culture Cafe Grandir. The ice-cream factory is interesting, but a ‘factory’ it isn’t! Its just an ice-cream store. But if you are looking for somewhere to lunch outdoors, Johnson Town is useful as it has a choice of cafes / restaurants with outdoor seating area.
5. Urban Regeneration
Another reason to visit Johnson Town, for some, might be to see an urban redevelopment success story in Japan. How the area went from military housing, or bei-gun as they were called in Japanese, to slum, to a regenerated trendy shopping and dining area, is really quite interesting. However, in my humble opinion, the biggest problem with the area is that it is currently a mix of private residences and commercial properties. I think it could reach its full potential, if they were to rezone the whole estate as commercial. It may attract a broader range of visitors if it weren’t for the current mixed messages of the town. Literally! The sign above is actually on one of the streets that is actually open to visitors!
6. Cafe Grandir
For me personally, Cafe Grandir is the main reason to visit Johnson Town! Tucked away in a corner of a courtyard, it affords a bit more privacy than some of the other cafes with outdoor seating. Ironically, this cafe does have a bit of ‘nature’ with a beautiful magnolia tree and some bushes by the veranda! The outdoor area is actually quite small though, as is the inside. So if you want a choice of seat, arrive early! In my (limited) experience, Grandir seems to get the most business in Johnson Town. Possibly down to the affordable prices, but I’ve no doubt the quality of the food also contributes. It also helps that there is an amicable at-home type environment. Furthermore, they cater to children.
The menu is larger than you would expect of a cafe of this size and style. You can get individual dishes or a lunch set, which is really good value. You can get a decent sized lunch set, as in the picture above, for around 1000 yen. It comes with a rice, a salad, a side and a small dessert. And a drink also. The coffee is very good at Grandir. And if you order a latte, it has foam art on top. There desserts such as waffles, sweet toast and sundaes look very good, but I’ve yet to indulge myself. But they get very good reports online! Their desserts I suppose could be classified as “American”, but this is not an American style / food restaurant.
The ½! A tiny umbrella sky at Kaigara Coffee Room!
Added in June 2022. Another reason to visit Johnson Town right now, in summer of 2022, is because one of the coffee shops, “Kaigara”, has a tiny umbrella sky! Its not nearly as big as the one in Hanno, not even a twentieth of the size, but if you like taking photos, its instabae! The full name of the coffee shop is Kaigara Kissashitsu. You may have heard of a ‘kissaten’, a tea drinking shop that also serves coffee. A Kissashitsu is a variation of that. Which translates more directly to tea room in English, but Kaigara is actually a coffee shop, so a coffee room!
Its a very picturesque little coffee room, even without the umbrellas. However, it is one of the places that I found overpriced. The coffee you can see in the photo above, a marshmallow topped latte, was 650 yen. I didn’t mind paying it today to sit under the umbrellas, especially as I had the veranda to myself, but I am not sure its worth that price otherwise. They serve some light meals too. They smelled delicious, but I haven’t sampled any of their food yet.
By the by: the main reason I made this the “½” is because I will eventually give Kaigura Coffee Room 貝殻喫茶室 a blog post of its own!
Have you been to Johnson Town yet? What were your impressions? Are there any other stores or restaurants you would recommend?
|Address:||1 Chome-2-11 Azumacho, Iruma, Saitama 358-0002|
|Phone:||Cafe Grandir: +81429412955|
|Hours:||Johnson Town is open 24 hours in theory, but the shops and stores all have different hours and days off. |
Cafe Grandir: 11 am to 5 pm according to Google, 10.30 am to 7 pm according to their website.
Closed on Tuesdays and the 1st and 3rd Monday of the month.
|Cost:||Around 1000 yen for lunch|
|Online:||Grandir Official website|
Johnson Town Official website
Johnson Town has its own parking lot on the south east of the housing estate. Parking is charged, but the first half hour is free. It costs 200 yen for an hour on a weekday and for half an hour on the weekend. However, it is capped at 800 yen total on a weekday and 1000 yen total on the weekend. A couple of the stores along the main road also have their own parking for one or two cars, with no charge.
By public transport, Johnson town is about a twenty minute walk from Seibu Ikebukuro Line’s Irumashi station.