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Japan's Golf Scene

© James Spence

Photo: James Spence

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.

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