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Japan's Golf Scene

© James Spence

Photo: James Spence

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.

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