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Japan's Golf Scene

© James Spence

Photo: James Spence

“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.)

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