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What's it like to golf in Japan? FAQ of Asia's best kept golfing secret

Golf in Japan is as unique as the country itself, there are over 6,852 islands including the four main islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Shikoku and Kyushu. There are 2,349 courses in Japan, varying from some revered top 100 courses to riverside pitch and putt. The below information is aimed at newcomers to Japan and attempts to cover the basic questions on teeing it up in Asia's best kept golfing secret!

Image: © shibuya246.com  

IS BOOKING A TEE TIME DIFFICULT?

Booking
Booking a tee time in any non-English speaking country can be a challenge but it's getting much easier here in Japan. 

Booking through Hotels and agents
Most hotels will be able to book a round for you, but if it's short notice then probably midweek and courses outside of Tokyo or the other larger cities is the best option. There are both large and bespoke tour operators in Japan, but they will only deal with a handful of courses but could be the best option if you don't fancy doing it yourself.

Tour operators:
JTB Golf tours (Japan's biggest tour operator)
Esprit Golf (Custom tours for groups traveling from overseas)
Walk Japan (Bespoke tours for small groups/individuals)

English booking:
There are not so many golf courses in Japan that can accept bookings in English, the market here is almost 100% domestic customers only. However the below courses have good Englsih service:
Tsutsujigaoka Country Club
Murasakizuka Golf Club
Windsor Park GC
Harunanomori CC
Taiheiyo GC

Online booking
Online booking is very popular in Japan. Sites offer a lot of user-based rankings, discounts and remarkable offers for featured courses, however, all do not have English service. If you can work with Google translate etc. then it is worth giving one of these a try:
Rakuten's GORA (The biggest online Golf booking site)
Golf Digest Online
ALBA

Local Foreign Golf groups and outings:
Head over to our community section to see what's happening!

IS IT EXPENSIVE TO GOLF IN JAPAN?

The days of astronomical green fees are fortunately gone. Although there are exclusive and expensive courses still to be found, generally the pricing is around ¥15,000 - ¥20,000 ($138.00 - $184.00) on weekends and between ¥8,000-¥12,000 ($73.00 - $110.00) on weekdays for courses within an hour of Tokyo. This might seem a bit pricey compared to your local course in the UK or the US, but this usually includes, cart, lunch, and ofuro (bath or onsen) as well as the certainty of excellent and plentiful service along with well maintained and interesting courses.

However, if you are prepared to travel further from the larger cities prices can be significantly lower. Also, season plays a key part, spring and fall will command the most expensive tee times as Japanese golfers love to play when Hanami (cherry blossom) and Shinryoku (new green season) and Kouyou (autumn foliage) seasons are peaking. Winter and summer see the courses a lot quieter and this makes a perfect chance for a visiting golfer to experience Japan golf at a fantastic price.

WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO GET TO THE COURSE?

Japan is renowned for its transportation, whether it's the always-on-time trains, endless local flight options (67 airports in all) and expressway road system, whichever you choose there is always a way to get you to your game on time!

By Train
The train system in Japan is immense and impeccably reliable, all major cities have extensive local train systems and intercity travel is made easy and enjoyable with the indomitable Shinkansen. Depending on where you are traveling from the expense will vary, and do keep in mind reserved seating can be costly, slower regular trains are also an option but they are busier and have a lot of stops. 
Check train times and best route options including price here: https://world.jorudan.co.jp/mln/en/?sub_lang=nosub 

Dragging your clubs on the train? Don't!
It is popular to take the train and ship your clubs via Takubin. This service is super convenient and very easy to set up. The Yamato transport company who operate the service have it down to a fine art, they have an English website here. Just remember you need to allow two days if shipping your clubs within Japan to any course within Japan, and the same for the return journey.

By Car
Japan's road network is extensive and serves over 70 million motorists, as that number would suggest- it can get congested and if there is an accident on the expressway, you can get stuck. But if all goes well then you have a great way to travel to the course in style. The cost for road tolls can add up so be sure to have cash in the car when traveling on the expressways. You can check a basic guide for Kyushu here:

Renting a car is easy in Japan - you just need your own country's driver's’ license together with an International driver’s licence. There are many international car rental companies here as well as local operators. Toyota operates a full service in English: https://rent.toyota.co.jp/eng/ and have the most extensive locations nationwide.

Navigation in English is available from rental companies but these days any smartphone with Google maps will take you to your destination even if you enter the address in English.

Always remember:
- Cars drive on the left in Japan, steering wheel is usually on the right.
- Always allow an extra hour for driving in Japan- it's better to have an extra hour on the driving range than to be stuck in traffic when your tee times comes around.
- Keep plenty of cash in the car for tolls.
- Best to fill the tank up outside of the car rental as they will charge a premium to refill.
- Keep your driver's license, passport and if possible the tel. number of a Japanese speaker- just in case!

THE CLUBHOUSE

Most clubhouses in Japan are on the extravagant side, a salute to the bubble economy which saw a golf explosion in Japan and with it hugely, exuberant membership fees.

When you arrive at the clubhouse there will always be a few staff ready to take your bags and give a warm welcome. Make sure to take what you need from your golf bag, as it will be whisked off to your designated cart almost straight away.

When you enter the clubhouse head straight for the reception where you will be asked to fill in a registration form, there will be lots of questions in Japanese here, but really all they need is your name (in block), email and telephone number, it's always good to leave your address in Japan or hotel name too.

Once you have completed the form they will give you a locker wallet containing a key for your locker and a scorecard. This locker wallet is very important as most clubs operate a locker number system, whereby you use your locker number for purchases in the pro shop, restaurant etc. and then settle your bill just before leaving on check-out at the reception.

When you get to the locker room, it may be necessary to remove your shoes, if this is the case take them with you to your locker. For valuables, there are small safety boxes in or close to the locker room. Once you have left your belongings in the locker/safe you are good to head out to the practice facilities if time, or your cart and out to the course.

Note about dress codes:
In most public Golf courses in Japan, they are not as strict on dress codes as the private courses, but it is always good to be smart/casual - a collared shirt and trousers (not denim). With the hot summers in Japan, most courses are OK with shorts and a polo shirt. If you are in doubt about it best to ask the course (or whoever booked for you) before you go.

NOW THAT YOU ARE ON THE COURSE- WHAT IS DIFFERENT?

In Japan, you will most likely be playing from the white tees - this is the regular tee, with the black or blue being competition or long tees, gold being senior and pink or red being ladies. You will see as your tee up, a flag in the middle of the fairway about 230 yards from the whites. This indicates a good position for the next shot and also as a guide - usually when the next group passes it is generally, OK to play away (If you're a long hitter- better to hang on another minute or two).

The white stakes

The white stakes indicate OB, most courses in Japan will have a lot of these- so always check the hole guide. If you do go OB and If indicated, players can be required to play their 4th shot from forward tees (usually about 100 yards from the pin)

This can even be the case for par 3's which can have 'play 3' forward tees!. Like it or hate it it's part of the game here and is intended to speed up the round. The forward tee is usually indicated by yellow or white tee ground stakes in the fairway.

The Yellow stakes
The yellow stakes (can be yellow and black) indicate an area like an OB line, if your ball crosses you are required to take a drop with a one-shot penalty. Your drop can be within two club lengths of the point of crossing but no closer to the hole.

Blue Stakes
This is ground under repair and is usually accompanied by a chalked border, you can lift your ball and drop at the nearest point of relief from the chalk boundary.

Start your engines
On most courses in Japan, it's expected you will go out in carts (it's included in your green fee) but if you prefer - you can walk the course, but don't expect bag trolleys to be available - there are none! A lot of courses have remote control carts so it is possible to walk while the cart lugs the clubs on the cart track to the side of the fairway.

WHAT KIND OF GRASS IS THIS?!

In Japan, most courses are planted with native korai grass for the course and bent for the greens. Korai dies off in the winter and becomes a pale yellow (though many courses paint the fairways with a dyed fertilizer). Korai is a dense grass and once in season is quick growing and has a thick root system.

Two greens?
It was popular in Japan to have two greens on every hole, particularly for courses built before the 90's.  The idea was to have a winter green of bent and a summer of korai.  These days the same courses will plant both with bent and alternate them to allow for recovery and aeration treatment etc. A good tip is if you're going by the course yardage markers - right side of the fairway markers will indicate the right green and the distance to its centre, and the left markers the left green centre.

The dreaded pitch mark goblin!
Something that drives everyone bonkers when they play in Japan is the pitch marks, or should I say lack of pitch repairing that seems to be going on. All Japanese golfers that we have played with seem to fix their pitch marks, but there are a lot of older golfers who back in the day (when a caddy was required) got used to having it done for them, and as sad as it is, do not repair, so you will see pitch marks on the green. Despite this, Japanese greens are some of the finest in the world and the dedicated green keepers are relentlessly checking during and after the rounds to make sure their greens are top notch.

LUNCH AFTER NINE?

This is something that you just have to accept as part of the game (usually). No matter what time you teed off, you generally will break after nine holes for 40 minutes or so and eat lunch.

Diehards, of course, can go to the range or the practice green, but what we say is 'when in Nippon'... Golf in Japan has many intricacies and these should be enjoyed! Plus, the lunch sets are usually high quality, delicious and inexpensive and we recommend some Soba or Udon!

There are also usually tea houses on the course where you can purchase snacks and beer etc. This would be only a short stop for a minute or two - you cannot hold up the group behind!

AFTER YOUR ROUND

After the round head back to the clubhouse and let the caddies know if you will take your clubs (Club wa Mochikaeri desu) or that you will be shipping them (Club wa Takyubin desu). Top tip when shipping your clubs - When you first place the shipping order choose as a return journey and they will have the return form pre-filled for you and attached to your golf bag. It is also a good idea to let the reception staff know when you check out that you will be shipping your clubs, then they will double check that all your paperwork for the Takyubin service is in order.

Clean your shoes!
Japanese are meticulous about cleanliness and in most golf courses you will find close to the entrance of the clubhouse, an area to clean your shoes, usually containing an air gun, wet brush and drying cloth. A lot of courses also feature a drying room -  somewhere you can hang wet clothes and gloves. Very handy during the rainy season (June-July).

ONSEN

After Golf, one of the best things about the Japan golf experience is having an onsen (geothermal hot spring). There is nothing better for a tired body and onsen are renowned for the waters healing and relaxing powers. However, there are a few things to remember as far as etiquette is concerned, which must be adhered to, but well worth the effort.

When you arrive back at your locker grab your change of clothes and head to the bathroom, there are usually some baskets to hold your clothes. De-robe here, take a provided small curtesy towel and move naked into the bathing area. Before entering the onsen you MUST wash first. There are usually shower stations as you enter and once you have fully washed make your way to the onsen. It's recommended to get in at the opposite end of where the water enters. Go slow and quietly, and if you're not used to hot baths best to submerge in stages so your body gets used to the temperature. Start with legs, then midsection and finally the upper body. After you have sufficiently soaked yourself and you have exited the onsen, be sure to drink plenty of liquids to avoid dehydration.

* If you have a tattoo, it's best to cover up with a plaster or bandage, as there still is an association with tattoos and mafia gangs in Japan. However, Japanese know these days that a foreigner with a tattoo does not mean mafia, so most likely nothing will be said.

THE WRAP UP

Golf in Japan is something to experience. Yes, it is ritualized, and yes, it does take almost all day to play a round.  However, you are left with an understanding of how wonderfully dedicated and perfectionistic Japanese golfing culture is, and how amazing the country and its fabulous golf courses are. Japan offers some of the most unique golfing experiences you can have anywhere in the world.

So, come and try some Japanese omotenashi or hospitality, you won’t be sorry!

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