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Playing a round: The ultimate Japan golf guide
All about the Japanese take on the sport in which you yell fore, shoot six and write down five
When it comes to swinging leisure activities, every man and his dog knows there's nothing quite like hitting the links for a round of golf to escape the slings and arrows of everyday life.
Equally understood is that golf in Japan has long had a reputation for being -- putting it politely -- somewhat exclusive. So, what’s a plus-four-loving weekender to do?
Just outside the reach of the commute schedules, meetings and drab office buildings, hundreds of manicured golf courses dot the landscape of Japan (so much for it being a “small country”), just waiting to offer weekend warriors a breather from city life.
"Golf is a sport that you basically need a certain amount of money to play, so there is a tendency that men in their 40s, who can afford it, play it," says Weekly Golf Digest's Yukiyo Inagaki.
"Maybe younger people can't really afford to, but since some began playing as children, like pro golfer Ryo Ishikawa, many are playing in their teenage years. Thus, the Japanese golf scene is full of players are either very young or those who are past their 40s."
There is, of course, also plenty of room in that equation for visiting golfers looking for 18 holes of a Sunday, but where to tee off? Here’s our quick-start guide to finding your very own “good walk spoiled” anywhere in Japan.
Reckon on taking a whole day
You can forget about carving out only four or five hours, golf in Japan is an all-day experience and so much the better for it.
"As with most Asian cities, the land around the cities is sought-after and therefore worth too much to build a golf course," says Canadian Bennett Galloway, Director of Golf and Teaching Professional at Gotemba Golf Club.
"This means that average travel times are an hour or two, one way, to the high- to mid-range courses, so there's two hours at least on your day from the get-go.
"Most clubs will have a shuttle service from the nearest train station, though they usually require a reservation. Depending on the club, you can expect a 2.5-hour front nine followed by a mandatory lunch break (40 minutes to an hour) then the second half. So, we’re at six hours now, plus travel."
"After a round, some people like to soak in the hot bath for a bit, then it's time to square up the tab, which can often run ¥15,000-¥20,000, depending on where and when you go, and how many beers you had at lunch," says Canadian Daily Asahi sportswriter Rob Smaal.
Anyone after 18 holes without the extras might want to consider golfing mid-week, when a round can be had on many courses for around ¥6,000 and up.
Bring your own clubs
As throwing the ball from tee to green is usually frowned upon, a golfer needs a good set of clubs. Just don't rely on the course -- the ones that offer rentals anyway -- to provide them.
"Since most Japanese customers tend to have their own clubs, or borrow from friends and family, most courses won't have state-of-the-art rental sets on offer or golf shoes in larger sizes, so best to bring your own clubs and shoes or expect to be at the mercy of whatever they have," Galloway advises.
"If renting, a quick check when making the reservation is always a good idea."
Another tip when playing golf in Japan is to let someone else do the heavy lifting on the trip to and from the course.
"Takkyubin (courier service) your clubs to the course a couple of days before you play, and do the same when you come back, assuming you are going by train," Smaal recommends. "Takkyubin is cheap -- about ¥1,500 each way -- and reliable."
You can't show up to the course wearing just anything. You don't have to go with a puffball hat and copious amounts of plaid, but there are things to consider, such as the club's dress code.
Most clubs require a collared shirt and some private clubs might require jackets to be worn in the clubhouse or have a policy on shorts, for example, so it is always best to check before arriving.
Golf is a gentleman's (and lady's) game, and on-course etiquette is important. Try to play at a considerate pace, so as not to inconvenience others.
Due to the recent transition in playing style from caddie-based play to self-play, some Japanese players aren't up-to-date on course manners regarding fixing marks on greens and raking bunkers, things caddies did in the past, so it's always best to do your part.
"In other countries, we say fix yours plus two others,” Galloway says -- an approach that will go a long way with the locals.
Next, a surprising rule -- singles are not allowed when playing golf in Japan; it’s groups only on most courses.
"Here in Japan they don't have starters who put together groups, you need to be a twosome minimum," Galloway says.
"This is because people have tended to do business on the course and joining would be like joining their business meeting.
“Here in Gotemba, I often get around this by offering a round lesson format where you get to play 18 holes with the Pro (me), getting the most out of the course as well as some helpful tips."
Thankfully, not everything is so straight-laced.
"A wee dram of swing-loosener on the course is often enjoyed here," Galloway says. "As long as you are not driving, this is OK. Some members do enjoy just that, along with perhaps some time away from their significant others."
"A pint with breakfast or savoring a hot sake at the turn in the winter are one of the reasons Japanese golfers prefer to keep their traditional lunch break. It's all very civilized."
More on CNNGo: The new way to sell golf in Japan
Treat your caddie right
While tipping isn't really a part of the Japanese culture, and may even be considered rude in some settings, it's OK to leave your caddie a little something after a round of golf in Japan.
"Yes, it is appropriate to tip your caddie, and these days ¥1,000 will not get you beat up," Galloway says.
"I'd suggest if you are a foursome to each toss in ¥1,000 and give her (usually, women caddy here) ¥2,000 in the morning and more after lunch if she did a good job.
"Note, they will try to not accept it, but this is also customary. You need to insist and even put it in their pocket if need be.”
Be wary of the summer
"Something I would try to avoid is playing in the dog days of summer from July to mid-September, when the heat and humidity can sap your energy and make it tough just to grip your club," Smaal says.
"It sucks trying to putt with sweat dripping off your nose. Also, if you do play in the summer, grab a few towels from the clubhouse and put a couple on the seat of the golf cart."
If you want to avoid the heat during summer on the Kanto Plain, these are great months to golf in Hokkaido, or even Nagano, where the altitude provides fresh cool mountain breezes.
Where to play
Golf Digest Online lists the Boso Course at Chiba's Boso Country Club as its current top-rated course. At Golf in Japan, an invaluable resource for English-speakers, Old Orchard Golf Club in Ibaraki Prefecture, is listed as the top course.
The Golf in Japan and Golfjin websites both have extensive listings of the best visitor-friendly clubs and a wealth of additional information.
Cream of the crop
"The courses that are used for the pro tournaments are popular," Inagaki says. "Some of them allow the members only, but there are courses that anyone can play.
“The courses that are used for the men's pro tournament are said to be relatively difficult, because the greens are fast and have variety in their layouts."
Hyogo’s Hirono Golf Club (ranked the 40th best club in the world, according to the 2011 “Golf Magazine” rankings) certainly fits the bill.
Designed by Charles H. Alison, it's Japan's most prestigious course. It may also the hardest to get time on, as non-members must play with a member.
Located just outside Kobe, the course has hosted each of Japan's major championships to date.
Another hotspot is the scenic Fuji course at Kawana Resort in Shizuoka, which is built along cliffs facing the Pacific Ocean and known as the Pebble Beach of Japan.
While golf courses have been home to any number of questionable fashion decisions -- we're looking at you John Daly -- your bags (preferably golf, Boston and shoe bags) should be a matching set. Golf stores tend to sell them in sets anyway, so it's hardly an issue.
"When you pull up to the club, there will be staff waiting to take your bags out of the car," Galloway says.
"They are whisked away to the caddie masters, usually at the opposite end of the club house, so you won't be seeing that again until starting time.”
This can have serious consequences you might not anticipate.
"This means that if you have your clothes and golf shoes in that bag, they’re gone and you'll look like a tool pulling your undies out of your golf bag and walking back into the club house to put them in your locker,” he adds.
“Same goes for your golf shoes and, as most people don't want their smelly spikes in with their fresh clothes in their shoe bag.”
Light up the course
We can help make your golf in Japan experience smoother, but as far as keeping that drive out of the water, well that's another story.
Japan's a great place to play a round or two, but if you want to get better, practice makes perfect. Spend some time on the links, hit the driving range or enlist a teaching professional to help straighten your game out.
But, until you get better, bring along an extra pair of socks. We hear those water hazards can get chilly this time of year.
More on CNNGo: 4 golf courses within driving distance of Tokyo
Boso Country Club
2300 Myorakuji, Mutsuzawa-machi,
Chiba 299-4433, +81 (0) 475 43 0111
Old Orchard Golf Club
686-3 Torihata, Ibarakimachi, Higashiibaraki-gun
Ibaraki 311-3142, +81 (0) 29 292 7777
Shishido Hills Country Club
1340 Minamikoizumi, Kasamashi
Ibaraki 309-1725, +81 (0) 296 77 2141
Nishi-Nasuno Country Club
804-2 Senbonmatsu, Nasu-Shiobara-shi
Tochigi 329-2747, +81 (0) 287 37 8113
Kyu-Karuizawa Golf Club
1372-3 Nagao, Karuizawa-machi, Kitasaku-gun
Nagano 389-0102, +81 (0) 267 42 2080
1459 Kawana Ito City
Shizuoka 414-044, +81 (0) 5-5745-111
Kasumigaseki Country Club
3398 Kasahata, Kawagoe-shi
Saitama 350-1175, +81 (0) 49 231 2181
Gotemba Golf Club
1924-2, Koyama, Gotemba-shi
Shizuoka 412-0033, +81 (0) 550 87 1555
Belle View Nagao Golf Club
1918 Koyama, Gotemba-shi
Shizuoka 412-0033, +81 (0) 550 87 1112