I once played doubles in a tennis tournament in the rural town where I lived in Japan, about halfway between Tokyo and Osaka. Though the event could not have been smaller, the ceremonial atmosphere still sticks with me: the registration paperwork, the speeches, the bowing thank-yous to opponents before the first serve. It was all so severe.
So when I recently signed up for a golf tournament in Japan I expected much of the same. The event was technically a friendly competition. But playing against some 350 participants in my first-ever golf outing in the Land of the Rising Sun, coupled with my impression from the supposedly friendly tennis competition, made me more than a little nervous.
The Japanese are notoriously bonkers about golf, paying stratospheric greens and club membership fees, obsessing over equipment and even, during the heyday of the bubble economy, buying hole-in-one insurance to protect against the financial burden of having to lavish one's golf partners with gifts, as is customary should one be unfortunate enough to make an ace in their country. Japanese culture and golf may have a sort of mystical compatibility, perhaps rooted in a Buddhist, all-life-is-suffering worldview. Or maybe the Japanese just love the game. Whatever their reason for playing golf, I figured the tournament would be anything but casual.
The Japanese archipelago put together would nearly equal the area of California, but 70 percent of that landmass is covered by steep, uninhabitable mountains. Considering nearly 127 million people live in such tight quarters, I was surprised by the sheer number of courses and generously long holes in Karuizawa, a resortlike town at the foothills of the Japan Alps about eighty minutes from Tokyo by bullet train. The tournament was held at Karuizawa 72, a four-course golfer's mecca set against a backdrop of jagged slopes. Its most notorious hole is the eighteenth on the Higashi Oshitate course: a 742-yard par six.
When I first arrived at Karuizawa, the late-summer leaves of the surrounding trees and the grasses were coated with a fine gray powder: ash from nearby Asamayama, a volcano that had been erupting on and off for the previous three weeks. One of my partners wondered about the official rules regarding lava obstacles or volcanic ash on one's golf ball, though no one seemed to have an answer.
Before teeing off, each group posed stoically for a picture. As an abysmally high handicapper, my start time was one of the last of the morning, but my gaijin status nevertheless stirred up a small crowd of onlookers. After my drive, the tee box belonged to forty-seven-year-old Masahiro Nakajima, who wore a navy-and-white-striped polo shirt. He turned to the spectators and said (in Japanese): "You all wanted to see his shot, but now you're making me nervous!"
Once the other guys had teed off, we climbed into the remote-controlled cart driven, or at least operated, by a sixtyish lady in a baby blue caddie uniform and an extra-large visor reminiscent of the cone collars that injured dogs have to wear. While Nakajima joked with Nobuo Inoue, a potbellied guy who smoked up a storm, Norimasa Taguchi and I discussed the Ryder Cup. Away from the clubhouse and small crowd, the tournament anxiety I had felt while milling about the practice green began to evaporate, as if the four of us were just a group of old friends out for a day on the links.
Though I speak a little of the language, communicating in Japan is actually easiest on a golf course, and more amusing. "Par," "birdie," "bogey" and "double" (for double bogey) are spoken in English, only delivered in a thickly accented staccato. On the third hole of the day I launched an eight-iron up over some trees, miraculously landing the ball within twelve feet of the flag. The other guys in my group called out, "Naisu sho!"—the Japanese version of the English word "nice," combined with "sho," stemming from "sho-to," the Japanglish version of "shot." (Similar permutations of this compliment are "Naisu boru!" and, for chipping or putting, "Naisu tachi!")
On a later drive, I sent my ball sailing toward the fairway of the neighboring hole, on a beeline for a cart full of golfers. In unison, the guys in my group and Caddie-san yelled out the Japanese version of "fore," which is "fah," though it sounded more like a squealing, panicky version of "Baaaahhhh!"—as if warning against an incoming, sheep-shaped meteorite.
After the front nine we stopped at the clubhouse to down a quick lunch of sweet rice wrapped in tofu, two baby hot dogs, a piece of fried chicken, some sort of pickled vegetable and triangular ham sandwiches with the crusts perfectly removed, as if with a laser. The guys talked with their mouths full, recalling some of the more calamitous shots of the day. Inoue smoked, Nakajima joked, and Taguchi gave me swing pointers about what not to do with my wrists. We finished with some sickly sweet coffee for a needed jolt of caffeine; many players had driven through the night to make the event, avoiding outrageous highway tolls by sticking to much slower local routes.
My misperception about an overly serious experience was officially pronounced dead on the fifteenth hole, when one of the guys—I don't know who—gave my lie a generous boost. I had a long chip to the green, where my three playing partners were already waiting to putt. I hit it too hard, and it scampered across the green into the far bunker, or at least I think it did; it was uphill and hard to see. Yet when I climbed up onto the putting surface and walked toward the trap, I saw the ball on the edge of the rough, as well as a telltale footprint in the sand. Meanwhile, everyone had fanned out to inspect their lies, obviously not wanting to give anything away. Behind on the hole and hopelessly behind on the day, I decided to silently accept their gesture, playing on as if I didn't know any better.
Inoue's score of eighty-nine was the best of our foursome, and though none of us were in contention for the crystal figurine prizes, I didn't get the feeling anyone cared. They were too busy having a good time, looking forward to beers that night and ribbing one another. At one point, they told me it was great to be able to play with a Westerner. Nakajima smiled mischievously. "When we watch gaijin play on television, they're all such good players that we assumed you would be, too. Now we know better." Their teasing, I think, was a sign of acceptance, which is not a trivial matter for a foreigner visiting or even living in such a homogeneous country.
Golf is often described as a definitively personal game, certainly more so than a team sport like football or soccer. But playing in this tournament in Japan, I was reminded of the writer Bill Bryson. In his account of hiking the Appalachian Trail, Bryson realized that hiking, at least for him, had less to do with a solitary struggle and more to do with the people encountered along the way. During that memorable weekend in Karuizawa, Inoue, Nakajima and Taguchi showed me that the same could be said of golf. •