When the little old lady indicated that I should remove the dripping wet bath towel from my otherwise naked body and deposit it in the laundry basket she was hauling across the locker-room floor of Osaka’s venerable Naruo Golf Club—that, I think, was the only time during my weeklong tour of Japan that I felt like a gaijin, or foreigner, uninitiated in the post-golf rituals of this rugged archipelago. I had just returned from the hot baths of Naruo’s onsen, where I had timidly joined a group of elderly gentlemen who were soothing their strained muscles in the steaming mineralized waters, and was congratulating myself on having not breached any of the strict rules of etiquette that dominate society here. But then, from seemingly out of nowhere, she appeared and demanded my towel.
I was, truth be told, more than a little taken aback. But can you blame me?After all, Naruo is one of Asia’s finest inland courses, a sort of Sunningdale of the East—and the last time I checked, that friendly club in the heart of Berkshire wasn’t employing grandmothers to strip towels from the loins of its male visitors. Nevertheless, after a quick scan of my immediate surroundings confirmed that nobody else seemed to find her presence the least bit unsettling, I whipped away my sole remaining cover of decency and bade her a cheery domo arigato.
I really shouldn’t have been all that surprised, of course. The Japanese golf experience, like pretty much everything else in this most hospitable of nations, is different, and markedly so. But it’s also wonderfully refreshing. And as a golf destination, the country presents one of the final frontiers of the developed world that hasn’t been touched by the hand (or the club, for that matter) of mass tourism.
I had wanted to visit Japan for as long as I could remember. As kids, my friends and I quickly realized that almost all the best toys and gadgets originated there. From remote-controlled race cars to Walkmans and Game Boys, everything we considered cool bore the Made in Japan stamp. Later, while at university in England, and usually after spending an agreeably lengthy session in the local pub on a Saturday night, my roommates and I would watch crazy Japanese game shows that Channel 4, in a moment of genius, had acquired the rights to broadcast. In these shows, contestants would subject themselves to painful (and often dangerous) ordeals in return for fistfuls of yen. The episode I recall most vividly involved a troop of young Japanese men taking turns submerging themselves in a glass tank full of snakes and other slimy reptiles while lithe, bikini-clad young women danced seductively on a podium. The basic idea of the game, we presumed (with no subtitles, we could never quite tell), was that the longer each guy managed to stay in the tank, the longer the girls would dance and the more money the guy would win. These were the days before Jackass and Fear Factor, and we’d never seen anything like it. It was utter madness, but to our ale-fogged adolescent minds, it made for hysterically entertaining viewing. We all agreed that Japan merited a visit—just as soon as we’d graduated and paid off our student loans.
But of all the generic images of the country that found their way into my consciousness over the ensuing years—from bullet trains to karaoke bars, from ancient Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines to sushi restaurants and sake-drinking businessmen—it was that of a beautifully landscaped golf course set amid a jaw-dropping background of snowcapped peaks and the pastel tones of sakura (cherry blossoms) that interested me most. Whether I saw this image in a magazine or on television I’m not sure, but it was far and away the most exotic golf landscape I had ever come across. Golf in Japan looked unquestionably good, and I wanted to try it for myself. Besides, I’d heard that Japanese golfers stopped for lunch and a beer before setting off on the back nine, which sounded like something I could easily get used to.
It might come as a surprise that there are more than 2,300 courses in Japan, close to half the total for the whole of Asia, and a great many of them can be seen as you descend from the clouds for the final approach into Tokyo’s Narita airport. The eastern seaboard of Honshu, the largest island in the archipelago and home to more than 80 percent of Japan’s population, is covered in pleasing lowland forest, and as I flew in I couldn’t help but notice the sheer number of holes hewn out of the mighty, deep-green pines below. In the five minutes prior to touchdown, I counted at least eight courses—a heart-lifting sight for any travel-weary golfer at the end of the lengthy transpacific flight.
But when was the last time you heard of anyone visiting Japan with the sole purpose of teeing it up?Other than Tiger Woods’s annual pocket-filling foray to the Dunlop tournament at the Phoenix Seagaia Resort on the southern island of Kyushu, my guess would be never.
There’s a reason for this, and for Japan’s stagnant tourism industry in general, says John Thornton, founder of Japan Golf Tours, a new operator aimed at English speakers. Thornton, whose help I came to rely on almost constantly, blamed it on the common perception that we in the West have long held about the Land of the Rising Sun: that it is the most expensive country in the world.
“It’s an unfortunate reputation to have,” admitted Thornton as we sat in Naruo’s oak-paneled bar enjoying a couple of bottles of ice-cold Asahi. “And it’s undeserved. When people talk of astronomical costs—for hotels, food or even golf—they’re referring to how things were in the late 1980s, before the economic bubble burst. Those days are long gone. Compared to other great golf destinations, like the British Isles, Japan actually offers very good value.”
I was inclined to agree. Prior to arriving in Japan, I spent a fortnight visiting family in London, and my credit cards bore the ugly scars of endless swiping. Japan, by comparison, seemed affordable, a far cry from the $500-a-night Tokyo hotel rooms and million-dollar golf club membership fees that stereotyped the country two decades ago. Today, a room in an upscale hotel in the capital will cost around $200, and a midweek round at a nice course within easy reach of downtown shouldn’t set you back more than $100.
But you wouldn’t go all the way to Japan to play golf courses that are merely “nice.” The same way you wouldn’t travel to Scotland and not play the classic links, you can’t go to Japan and not play the courses of Charles Hugh Alison, widely acknowledged as being some of the best outside the States and the United Kingdom.
Unlike his contemporaries—men such as A. W. Tillinghast, Donald Ross, George Crump and Alister MacKenzie—Alison’s is not a name that many recreational golfers in the West will be immediately familiar with. But his work during the Golden Age of golf course architecture—the first three decades of the twentieth century, which were highlighted by the great designs of Pine Valley, Cypress Point, Winged Foot and Augusta National—cannot be overlooked. During his time as junior partner to the great Harry Colt, Alison collaborated on such noteworthy gems as the Seaside Course at Sea Island and the original eighteen holes at Long Island’s Timber Point. The unsung Englishman is even credited with helping to complete four remaining holes at Pine Valley after Crump died, in 1918. But it was in Japan that Alison really found fame.
During his only visit to the East—a six-month tour in 1930—Alison designed four courses and redesigned several more, including Naruo. My first stop, the Fuji Course at the Kawana Hotel, is located a little less than two hours south of Tokyo on the Izu Peninsula, a coastal resort area that to my eye resembles the less touristy stretches of the French Riviera. It is also among three of Alison’s Japanese layouts that Golf Digest saw fit to include in its 2007 list of the best hundred courses outside the United States.
Established during the Roaring Twenties by Baron Kishichiro Okura, a young Japanese Anglophile with a penchant for fast cars, the Kawana Hotel is a grand Art Deco structure developed in the style of an English country hotel, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking lovingly manicured gardens and the aquamarine depths of the Pacific. A favorite of Hollywood A-listers of yesteryear, the Kawana hosted John Wayne and was also the setting for part of Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio’s honeymoon. It took only one round on the Fuji Course and a delicious serving of kare raisu (Japanese curry) afterward for it to become a favorite of mine, too.
Alison courses are noted for their small greens and vast, irregularly shaped bunkers (known in Japan simply as “Alisons,” or “Arissons,” depending on the accent of the local you talk to). And although the Fuji Course is no exception to this rule, it’s the elevation changes here that add just as much drama. Visiting on a weekday, I found the course not overly busy, so I went out as a single, my only partner being Koizumi-san, my female caddie. As at courses almost everywhere else in Asia, caddies are a mainstay of golf courses in Japan. But unlike in, say, China and Thailand, where they’re typically women in their twenties, Japanese caddies are usually considerably older. Koizumi-san, with the greatest respect, didn’t look a day under fifty. She was, however, fit as a fiddle, and she made for amusing company. After scaling the 470-yard fifteenth, a spectacular cliff-hugging par five that only the longest hitters can reach in two (Yardages go out the window at mountainous Kawana), I sought out a shaded bench by the next tee for a quick breather. Koizumi-san, dressed in multiple layers and a golf-ball-proof helmet, wasn’t having any of it: “Come, come, Mr. Jenkins. Let’s go. Rest later,” she said in her surprisingly good English. Needless to say, slow play is not an issue at Kawana.
The next day I took a two-hour local-line train to Gotemba, a town at the foot of mystical Mount Fuji. I had seen Fuji-san, or Mr. Fuji, as the Japanese affectionately refer to the country’s highest peak, from the back nine at Kawana some forty-five miles away. But it’s only when you get up close, as I did at Gotemba Golf Club, that you can fully appreciate its awe-inspiring presence.
The course, designed by Shiro Akaboshi, one of the country’s most recognized designers and a disciple of Alison’s, is a fairly typical Japanese layout in that it occupies wickedly undulating terrain and features some narrow landing areas. I had been told that in winter, people ski down the side of Mount Fuji; quite frankly, they’d probably get just as much buzz out of skiing down the first hole at Gotemba, such is the startling change in altitude. What it might lack in width, however, Gotemba more than makes up for in scenery, and I had thought at first that it might have been the same course I had seen in that image all those years before. I couldn’t be certain; its setting is exotic enough, but, sadly, there were no cherry blossoms in bloom. (I was later informed that 2007 had been a lackluster year for sakura in Japan.)
From Gotemba I took a bus to Mishima Station, where I caught the famous Shinkansen, better known outside Asia as the bullet train, to Kyoto. I had been looking forward to traveling on the Shinkansen, and it didn’t disappoint: We zipped across the 245 miles or so in an hour and fifty-nine minutes, pulling into Kyoto’s futuristic station precisely fifteen seconds in advance of our scheduled arrival time.
Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, is an interesting mix of old and new. One moment you’re strolling past steel-and-glass office towers (each with its own Starbucks in the basement, I’m sorry to say) and the next you find yourself ambling down narrow lanes that more often than not lead to quaint little water gardens and attractive pagodas. Before catching my afternoon train to Osaka, I wandered around Rokuonji, otherwise known as the Temple of the Golden Pavilion—the most famous attraction in Kyoto—which, although fascinating, was full to the brim with schoolkids on a field trip. Not quite the Zen-like serenity I was hoping for, but no matter: I would find that on my last day, at Hirono Golf Club.
Regarded as the best of Alison’s Japanese designs and one of the most exclusive clubs in Asia, Hirono, a thirty-minute drive from the earthquake-prone port of Kobe, is truly first-class. Less undulating than Kawana and Naruo, Hirono rolls magnificently through ancient parkland consisting of matsu (Japanese pine) and take (bamboo) and features delightful ornamental ponds and rather more brutal vegetation-filled ravines. The notorious Alison greenside bunkers—massive, bizarre-looking pits dug well below the surface of the elevated greens—are perhaps more pronounced here than on any other course in Japan, and because the championship tees have been moved back in a valiant attempt at preventing the course from succumbing to the mercy of whichever jumbo-headed, titanium-enriched driver Tour pros are wielding these days, Alison’s jagged fairway traps are now much more of a factor.
I played in the company of Murata-san, an elegant septuagenarian member who since retiring has been knocking it around this gorgeous setting up to three times a week. Over our midway lunch, I asked Murata-san if he had experienced much golf overseas. “Oh yes,” he replied, before regaling me with a list of some of the world’s most storied layouts. “And which is your favorite?” I asked. After a long pause, Murata-san put down his beer, blushed slightly in that self-effacing way the Japanese do when you ask them a potentially embarrassing question, and said, “I think . . . Hirono.” I could really see why.
Although it’s possible to book tee times and organize travel within Japan independently, given the language challenges and the fact that better clubs are strictly private it’s easier to use a tour operator.
Spring is the best time to go; it’s cherry blossom season and the temperatures are pleasant. Avoid Golden Week, a succession of four national holidays that falls at the end of April and beginning of May; at this time, hotels, trains and sightseeing spots are crammed with vacationing Japanese. Fall is also ideal for golf: The turf is usually at its best during September and October.
Hirono Golf Club
One of the world’s great inland courses, Hirono could be the best-kept secret in golf. Attractive ponds and Charles Hugh Alison’s vast bunkers are hazards to avoid, but the elevated greens present a difficulty in themselves.
7-3 Hirono, Shijimicho, Miki-shi, Hyogo. Architect: C. H. Alison, 1932.
$290–$335 (members’ guests only).
Kawana Hotel, Fuji
Japan’s answer to Pebble Beach, the Fuji Course is the most revered seaside track in the country and the only Alison-designed layout that doesn’t require a member’s introduction. Less than two hours from Tokyo, Kawana has a second eighteen, Oshima, which is a shorter and more forgiving test in attractive parkland.
1459 Kawana, Ito City, Shizuoka. Architect: C. H. Alison, 1936.
$255–$325 (hotel guests only).
Naruo Golf Club
A character-packed layout known for tiny, well-bunkered greens, Naruo wouldn’t look out of place among England’s great heathland courses.
1-4 Kanegaya, Nishi-Uneno, Kawanishi-shi, Hyogo. Architects: H. C. Crane, 1920; C. H. Alison, 1931.
$220–$240 (members’ guests only).
011-81/727-941-011, naruogc.or.jp (in Japanese only).
Phoenix Seagaia Resort, Phoenix Country Club
This massive resort encompasses forty-five holes, a fine instruction facility and the world’s biggest indoor water park, featuring a beach with surfable waves. The Dunlop Phoenix Tournament has been held here since 1974.
3083 Hamayama, Shioji, Miyazaki-shi, Miyazaki. Architect: Gokichi Ohashi, 1971.
Gotemba Golf Club
Set on a hillside offering fabulous views of Fuji-san, Gotemba can get funky, with huge elevation changes and narrow landing areas. But first-class maintenance and proximity to the mountain make for a memorable round.
1924-2 Koyama, Gotemba-shi, Shizuoka. Architect: Shiro Akaboshi, 1971.
011-81/550-871-555, gotembagolf.com (in Japanese only).
Japan Golf Tours (828-329-6000, japan-golf-tours.com) is the only golf-tour operator here catering specifically to English speakers. It organizes two annual tours—during the spring and autumn—but can also tailor trips for groups of eight or more throughout the year. Its huge advantage is that it can also arrange tee times at some of the country’s most prestigious clubs, including Hirono and Naruo.
A helpful website is golf-in-japan.com, an English-language resource detailing all the courses in the country and their contact information.
The time-honored custom of stopping for lunch at the halfway point is mandatory at most clubs in Japan but not all. Upon checking in, you’ll be given two tee times that allow for a forty-five minute break: the first for your “out” nine and the second for your “in” nine (yes, the Japanese refer to the two nines in the Scottish vernacular). Many clubs offer a two-course set menu for lunch that often includes such traditional favorites as katsudon (rice topped with deep-fried pork, egg and condiments) and kare raisu (Japanese curry). Beer is the tipple of choice, often a couple of small bottles of Sapporo or Asahi. Some courses, particularly those operated by international management companies such as Troon Golf, now allow “playing through,” thus doing away with any enforced stopover.
Sitting stark naked in a hot tub full of strangers might not appeal to everyone, but the onsen experience is a must for those wanting to immerse themselves (literally) in one of the most ancient aspects of Japanese culture. The Japanese believe that the mineralized water helps ward off any number of potential ills, but even if you’re not convinced, they’re still a wonderful, stress-relieving way to wind down after a round. All clubs have an onsen, and visitors are welcome to use them at no extra charge. The most important thing to remember is that you must shower fully before entering one. And although onsens are segregated according to gender, don’t be too put off if you see any little old ladies flittering around in the locker room. They’re just doing their job.