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Have you ever thought about how you would go about arranging to play at Augusta, Pine Valley or Cypress Point? These are three of the world's most private clubs – along with three similarly mysterious venues in The Land of the Rising Sun. I recently made a flying visit to Japan with Andrew Bertram from Yarra Yarra. I was quite apprehensive about what I would find. I come from the Scottish school where you throw the bag over the shoulder and hare round the course as quickly as you can and I was nervous about what I had heard of "Japanese Golf" – the expense, the long commute to/from the courses, the difficulty accessing the private clubs, the language barrier, the complicated post-round bath protocol......and how good could the courses be, after all?
Well, I have to tell you that I cannot remember being as excited about a golf destination for a long, long time. Japanese golf does have its challenges – the four "big courses" are spread out across Honshu, everyone's English is certainly better than my Japanese and it's very, very difficult to arrange invitations to play the three extremely private clubs. However, the courses (all touched by the hand of Charles H. Allison back in the '30's) are simply fantastic – certainly deservedly in the World Top 100 - and each quite different to the others. The caddies, the lunches and the baths (!) make for a fun, unique and entirely memorable golf experience. Add to that a week of living in such a different culture and you are guaranteed a great time!
I am also extremely pleased to let you know that we have established a relationship with Japan Golf Tours to provide us with access and hosting for our clients traveling to this unique golf destination. Please read more about Japan Tours in the "Our Golf Friends" Section or click here.
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. As a golf destination, the country presents one of the final frontiers of the developed world that hasn't been touched by the hand of mass tourism. There are more than 2,300 courses in Japan, close to half Asia's total.
Charles Alison is not a name that many recreational golfers in the West will be immediately familiar with. But his work during the Golden Age of course architecture cannot be overlooked. During his time as junior partner to the great Harry Colt, Alison collaborated on many noteworthy gems. The unsung Englishman is even credited with helping to complete four remaining holes at Pine Valley after Crump died. 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. Alison courses are noted for their small greens and vast, irregularly shaped bunkers (known in Japan simply as "Arissons," – you work it out).
Caddies are a mainstay of golf courses in Japan, but unlike China and Thailand, where they're typically women in their twenties, Japanese caddies are usually considerably older. They also come with a piece of equipment I've never seen elsewhere – a motorized contraption that looks like a cross between a motor scooter, a rickshaw and a golf buggy – and it can accommodate up to four bags. At hilly Naruo, they've even installed a traction system around all eighteen holes so that the caddies don't have to push the carts up and down the hilly terrain. The mechanized system works with some sort of magnets under the ground and the caddie manages it by remote control.
The time-honoured 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 favourites 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.
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 flitting around in the locker room. They're just doing their job.