Peter Ellegard heads east to discover why Japan is the most exciting golf destination in the world.
The land of the rising sun is now an emerging golf holiday destination. Ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, where golf will again feature after its reintroduction at Rio in 2016, Japan is laying out the welcome mat for international golfers.
Where once golf was mainly the preserve of exclusive golf clubs, falling memberships and resulting closures – course numbers have dropped from almost 2,500 in 2000 to something over 2,200 today – have prompted many clubs to open their fairways to overseas visitors. Luxury golf resorts also offer stay and play opportunities.
The push for attracting international golfers is being led by the Mie Prefecture, which hosted the inaugural Japan Golf Tourism Convention last October, organised by global golf tourism industry association IAGTO.
Golf courses and hotels from 18 of Japan’s 47 prefectures attended the event, meeting golf tour operators from around the world, including the UK. The operators also experienced golf facilities and sights on pre and post fam trips to other parts of Japan.
There is golf in every prefecture. Many courses are close to cities, making travel to and between them easy. Golfing clients can even take Japan’s famed Shikansen bullet trains as part of an itinerary.
However, not all golf clubs have signs in English or English-speaking staff, so IAGTO has helpfully identified courses which are geared up for international visitors as “export ready”.
About half of Japan’s courses offer caddies, usually one per four-ball group and everyone riding in a single buggy. Golf clubs often have paths with magnetic strips below and caddies can remotely control buggies, sending them on to the next tee when the group is putting. At most courses golfers have morning and afternoon tee times for each nine holes, with an hour’s mandatory lunch break in between.
Many golf clubs also have hot spring baths, or onsens, where golfers must follow strict protocols such as showering before entering and not letting their towels touch the water. Tattoos are also not allowed. These are the main golfing areas for overseas golfers.
The sub-tropical climate allows year-round golf in Japan’s southernmost prefecture, which comprises more than 150 islands. Among golf resorts are the Kanucha Resort (kanucha.jp), with a highly rated course, and PGM Golf Resort Okinawa (pacificgolf.co.jp/okinawa), overlooking the East China Sea. Ocean views are also on offer from the upland fairways of Shurei Country Club (shurei-cc.com) and Emerald Coast Golf Links (tokyugolf.com/emerald), situated right on the sea.
A number of the prefecture’s 69 courses are in the Ise-Shima resort region that includes tourist attractions including the Ise-Shima National Park, the pearl fishing women divers of Toba and Mikimoto Pearl Island, and the historic Ise Shrine.
Golf courses include: Tsu Country Club (tsu.co.jp) co-designed by Japanese golfing hero Jumbo Ozaki, which has just added on-site accommodation; Nemu Golf Club (nemuresort.com), part of a resort with fairways and greens set spectacularly above inlets of Ago Bay; and the Ohtori Course at Fuji OGM Excellent Club Ise (orix-golf.jp), one of two at the resort.
The original home of Japan’s ninja warriors – you can dress up as a ninja and try throwing ninja stars at the Koka Ninja Village – also encompasses the largest lake in Japan, Lake Biwa. Golf facilities close to prefecture capital Otsu, on the southern shore of the lake and just 20 minutes from the ancient city of Kyoto, include the undulating Seta Golf Course (princehotels.co.jp/golf/seta) with three courses high above the lake and an associated 38-floor lakeside hotel, and Koka Country Club (koga-cc.jp) laid out on forested mountain slopes.
Home to Japan’s iconic Mount Fuji, the prefecture is Japan’s largest producer of green tea and wasabi, and golfing clients can relax after a round at natural onsen hot springs, including in some traditional ryokan hotels. Fuji’s conical peak forms the backdrop to a number of nearby golf courses, among them Fuji County Club (fujicountryclub.com), in Gotemba. The Yamaha Resort Katsuragi Kitanomaru (yamaharesort.co.jp/katsuragi-kitanomaru) offers guests two courses at nearby Katsuragi Golf Club. The challenging Fuji Course, one of two at the Kawana Resort (princehotels.com/en/golf/kawana) on the Izu Peninsula, is laid out on coastal cliffs and ranks among the world’s top 100 courses.
Golf in Japan’s most northerly prefecture, known for its glorious natural scenery, is seasonal, from April to October. Hokkaido Brooks Country Club (brooks-c.com) was named Japan’s best golf course at the 2017 World Golf Awards.
Of courses in Japan’s other regions, the Miyazaki prefecture’s Phoenix Seagaia Resort (seagaia.co.jp) has a Sheraton hotel and two golf courses, one by golf legend Tom Watson and the Phoenix Country Club course, ranked among Japan’s top three and host to the Japan Golf Tour’s Dunlop Phoenix Tournament.