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Given the sheer mass of Japan’s cities, golf here is not the simplest pursuit, but it’s one of the nation’s major sporting passions nonetheless. Aside from being home to some of the world’s finest equipment manufacturers—Mizuno, Miura, Honma, et al—the country has a golf scene known for its distinctive traits: a long sushi lunch after nine holes and the après-golf onsen.
Benjamin Warren, an aspiring golf designer from Scotland who has lived in Japan for seven years, says these cultural attributes are rooted in practicality. “Golfers travel long distances to their clubs from bases in central Tokyo, Osaka, or Kobe,” he says. “Factoring in at least two hours of travel and potentially returning directly to a city restaurant after your game, both the lunch break and bathing make sense.”
Any premier clubs that once existed in metropolitan areas have long since been swallowed up by development. Most of Japan’s top courses today were developed in the interwar period, some by Japanese architects and others by the Englishman Charles Hugh Alison, an associate of the great Harry Colt. While Colt, as the senior partner, preferred working closer to home in Britain, Alison spent much of the 1920s representing the firm in the U.S., where he produced such renowned designs as the original Seaside Course at Sea Island, in Georgia. With the onset of America’s Great Depression, Alison went far afield in search of new business, arriving by ocean liner in Tokyo Bay in 1930.
Alison’s handiwork animates the Kawana Hotel (rooms from $369; 1459 Kawana, Ito; princehotels.com), on the Izu Peninsula, about two and a half hours south of Tokyo by train and taxi. It opened in 1936. Today, the hotel’s interiors may be a shade tired, but there’s still charm in the form of beamed ceilings, marble fireplaces, and corridors lined with bric-a-brac. There are two courses here, the Oshima and the Fuji. The former dates to 1928 and is the work of Komyo Otani, a major figure in early Japanese golf. But Alison’s Fuji, from 1936, is the main event.
The Fuji is golf on a grand scale—courses like Highlands Links in Nova Scotia or the Plantation Course at Kapalua in Maui, Hawaii, share strands of its DNA. It’s terrific fun to play, full of big-drop tee shots (the drives on the 1st and 15th holes offer thrilling hang times); heaving, undulating fairways; and artfully sculpted greens complexes. The course would be well served by some strategic tree clearing, but the Pacific Ocean is still nearly always in view.
What impresses most are the bones of the routing—the way in which the architect moves the player around the site. Usually, every scenic drop shot must be paid back in the routing with an equally taxing ascent, but at Kawana, really only the par-5 third truly feels like an uphill slog. Superb holes abound, and while the par-5 15th along the cliff ’s edge is the showstopper, our favorite was the par-4 seventh, where players must plot a way over or around an upwelling fairway bunker en route to an anthill of a green.
Though our group did puzzle over how, on a bluebird day within striking distance of a city the size of Tokyo, a course as good as the Fuji could be nearly empty. The only plausible explanation offered was that, like Pebble Beach, the course has reservation restrictions favoring hotel guests.
Japan has many private establishments, starting with Tokyo Golf Club (private; 1984 Kashiwabara, Sayama; tokyogolfclub.jp). It’s what brought Alison to Japan, through the offices of Otanian amateur champion who had fallen in love with heathland golf as a student in England. But Alison’s design for Tokyo, known as the Asaka, was short-lived; during the run-up to World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army bought the property, necessitating the club’s second move west in 26 years.
As a result, the course we know today, an hour and 45 minutes by train outside the city’s center, is an Otani design that has been recently polished by Olympic course architect Gil Hanse, the club’s current consultant. “Otani was Alison’s translator and worked side by side with him at Hirono and Kawana,” Hanse says. “When the club moved, he tried to build bunkers and greens complexes in a similar fashion to what he learned from Alison.”
Some world-class courses are so brilliant that admirers are willing to overlook so-so holes in their midst; others dole out fewer highs and lows but end up greater than the sum of their parts. Tokyo Golf Club’s course is the latter. While it's built over relatively flat parkland terrain, its features—the diagonal cross bunker in the landing area of the par-4 second, the Alison-style pedestal green defended by a dogleg and corridor of trees at the 11th—gradually accrue.
Visitors to Tokyo Golf Club (and many Japan courses) will notice the unusual presence of a second green near each hole. The two-green system was intended to give golfers nice putting surfaces year-round. One green would be planted with a warm-season turfgrass, while the other would have some kind of luxe bent grass. Today, most clubs have given this up and are now simply maintaining 36 bent grass greens. The practice originated in 1936 at Tokyo’s neighboring club, Kasumigaseki Country Club—where Tom Fazio’s design team recently removed the East course’s alternate greens in preparation for its role as the host venue of the 2020 Olympic golf tournament.
Another club that’s bringing Japanese golf into the 21st century is Yokohama Country Club (private; 1025 Imai-cho, Hodogaya-ku, Yokohama; yokohama-cc.jp), 75 minutes south of Tokyo by train. It just unveiled its new West course, reimagined by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. It couldn’t have been easy for Yokohama’s owner, Takeyasu Aiyama, to pull the trigger on a renovation—his grandfather designed both of the club’s courses in the 1960s—but Yokohama is a significant development in Japanese golf in many ways. Even though the original routing wasn’t drastically altered, the hole corridors were massaged. This process softened some of the property’s more severe contours and increased both its playability and visual drama.
Ditching the two-green system enabled the architects to create a single set of greens with more character—bolder contours, more interesting surrounds—than is typically seen in Japan. Aiyama even removed cart paths to produce as clean an aesthetic as possible—a big deal in a country where caddies walk alongside motorized trolleys rather than carry their players’ clubs. (Japanese caddies, by the way, are oft-praised for both their expertise and sweet disposition.)
Coore and Crenshaw’s work in Yokohama has raised the bar for contemporary golf architecture in Japan. Whether it will influence future construction as much as the current gold standard, Hirono Golf Club (private; 7-3 Shijimicho-Hirono, Miki; 81-79/487-3111), remains to be seen. Situated on the outskirts of Kobe, Hirono is ultraexclusive, with an Alison course that, like New Jersey’s Pine Valley, asserts its greatness from the first tee shot. (Pine Valley is presumably a design influence, given Alison’s involvement on a committee charged with its completion after founder George Crump’s death.) It’s one of those rare places in golf that has a kind of “aura”—that may sound vague, but it’s something well-traveled players will surely understand.
Hirono is famous for its deep bunkers, nicknamed Alisons. Standing on the tee of the fifth or seventh holes, it’s hard to fathom that these hazards have been softened since the architect’s day. The course boasts a variety of features beyond sand traps, though. Many are driven by the natural terrain; Hirono’s rolling property is ideal for golf, in part because Alison expertly used thrilling (but fair) forced carries and sharp doglegs to catapult around its elevation changes. In quieter sections, the architect built pedestal greens and berm-like fairway cross bunkers to keep the players alert.
Recently in Japan’s Golf Digest Choice, Hanse said that a fully restored Hirono would rank among the top ten courses in the world. The truth is that most visitors will be floored by its current form. However, any course analysis is unlikely to survive the postround crocodilian submergence in the bath with a view of a garden. By the time the Asahis hit the grillroom table, at Hirono or anywhere else, it will be clear that hospitality—guided by protocol, yet deeply refined—is the essential ingredient of golf in Japan.