Hideki Matsuyama’s victory at The Masters was the first for a golfer from Japan, and his pioneering win (plus Tsubasa Kajitani’s triumph at the Augusta National Women’s Amateur) has us reminiscing about what golf is like under Mt. Fuji. Get familiar with the country’s golf traditions, and check out the RGC Films about Japan from EAL’s most recent trip.
1901: The First Tee Shot In Japan
When someone says Scotland, Ireland, Monterey, or Hawaii, your brain might conjure up images of sprawling fairways, cavernous bunkers, fescues and green flags fluttering in the breeze. All of these places have become synonymous with the game of golf. But when someone says, “Japan,” you might first think of the country’s cuisine and customs: sushi, ramen, kimonos and cherry blossoms. Golf might not be the first thing that comes to your mind — but it should be.
Once upon a time a man by the name of Arthur Hesketh Groom, a tea trader, came to Japan by way of England. In 1901, after living in Japan for over three decades, Arthur, a mountaineer and outdoorsman, converted his yearning for the game of golf into a private four-hole course on Mt. Rokko, in Kobe, as a place for himself to play. With the help of some expatriate friends, this four-hole course expanded into a nine-hole course and became known as Beholde Kobe Golf Club: the first official golf course in Japan.
Over the next decade, Japanese interest in the game skyrocketed, but there was one little problem — all of the golf clubs during that time were established by expats. It took a man named Junnosuke Inoue to create a Japanese golf club for the Japanese golfer: the Tokyo Golf Club. In 1913, Japan officially had its first golf club in the country built by the people, for the people. And thus, the game kept growing.
New courses continued to open and professional Japanese athletes began to see great success. By 1980, there were more and 1,000 courses across the country. Today, Japan is home to more than 2,500 courses, and the game is now more accessible than ever. This small island in the Pacific Ocean — not even the size of California — holds more golf courses than the rest of Asia combined.
All it took were few expatriates, a longing for the game, and a nine-hole course, and golf in Japan was firmly planted on Japanese soil. Nowadays? The game flourishes on and off the course with a wonderful aesthetic meandering through the golf shops and tracks all over the country.
A Typical Round of Golf
For a country known more for their labor than leisure, the Japanese know as good as anyone how to really enjoy a round of golf. In fact, maybe the word ‘enjoy’ doesn’t even do it justice. The Japanese don’t come to the course in efforts to crank out a quick 18 in 3.5 hours. They come expecting their round to last all day — complete with an all-but-mandatory one-hour lunch break after the first 9.
- A language barrier can be difficult for any foreigner in any land, so several courses offer ways to book in English online.
- Expect to pay around $100-$150 for a round on a weekend, or $75-$100 on a weekday.
- If you’re staying in Toyko the best way to reach the courses is via the train system.
- Don’t worry – you can ship your clubs to the course or rent there!
When You Arrive At The Course
When you’re ready to actually tee it up and play some golf, be prepared for some things you might not see at home: some of the most wonderful caddies in the world, and golf carts that drive themselves. (They were way ahead of us on that one.)
You might also be surprised to see that the majority of golf courses have female caddies that take care of everyone in your foursome at once. The women here are perhaps better than anywhere else: attention to detail, care for the customer — they do it all.
At the turn house, or the restaurant after your round, your day will be complete with drinks you can’t find anywhere else (except Coca-Cola) and even refreshing warm towels that make you feel like golf royalty. When you’re all done for the day? Your caddy will make sure you leave with all 14 clubs you came with, and get your signature to prove it. It’s amazing how a science is turned into an art.
What You’ll Take Home With You
The idiosyncrasies don’t stop there. Some elements from golf in Japan will stick with you forever. Chief among them is the double-green concept. It makes perfect sense in principle: if a single green is used over and over and over again, it’ll age quickly and be more difficult to maintain. That’s why all over the country you’ll see double greens that essentially double your green’s lifespan. Don’t worry: if you land on the wrong green like EAL did, you get a free drop just off the fringe. It’s almost like the rule was written by the golf gods themselves.
Another unique facet of the Japanese game? No match play. It struck Erik as odd, given his affection for match play the Scottish way, but Japanese golfers make it stroke play all day.
Perhaps the most important takeaway is that women’s golf in Japan is vital to the country’s golf culture — and you probably couldn’t say the same about many other countries in the world today. In a match with Kacie Komoto at Yokohama Golf Club, she told us about how the support for female golfers, especially in the early stages of a professional career, is wonderful because viewership and sponsorship money is actually bigger than the men’s game. What a model to learn from.
All told, we can’t recommend the Japanese golf experience highly enough. The detail, the focus on the women’s game — it’s all a lesson for the rest of the world. Plus, you get to enjoy the customs and the cuisine to boot. Happy travels as soon as it’s safe for you to do so. ✌️
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Stay tuned for future trips around the world, and future TRAVEL BAG series. In the meantime, check out a special episode of Adventures in Golf at the magical Miura headquarters, where Erik went on a quest to find and forge the perfect golf club.