Kagoshima’s Golfing GemsTanegashima and Ibusuki rank with the best golf courses in Japan
“Suppose they gave a war …. and nobody came” was a famous anti-war slogan from the 1960s. Well, suppose they built a golf course …. and nobody came. That could be the slogan of the beautiful but sadly under-used Tanegashima Golf Club in Kagoshima Prefecture.
Traveling from the Tokyo region to this remote island off the south coast of Kyushu feels like heading into the wilderness. It’s a 90-minute jetfoil ride from Kagoshima City, 90 minutes that quickly takes you from the fast lane to the slow. Only 28,000 people live on Tanegashima, with more than half of them in the main town and port of Nishinoomote. The island stretches north to south for nearly 60 km but is barely 10 km wide and has a maximum elevation of 282 meters.
But it still has plenty going for it. Its most recent claim to fame is as the launch site for Japan’s rockets. Once or twice a year you can go and watch massive rockets take off into space. There’s a Space Science Museum at the southeast tip, just around the corner from the beautiful and very pink Iwasaki Hotel, which sits alone on a perfect white sand beach, one of many on the island used for surfing.
But wait! There’s another museum – a gun museum, because Tanegashima was the first place in Japan to experience guns (in 1542). And if guns aren’t your thing, there are plenty of knives. When the Taira clan were exiled from Kyoto in the late 12th century, they took their craftsmen – and apparently their accent – with them, so Tanegashima is famous for making "Tanegashima Hōchō" (Tanegashima knives), used by chefs, and "Tane-basami" (Tanegashima scissors), preferred by many for the art of Bonsai. The local dialect and accent is from Kyoto, not Kagoshima.
Coming back to modern times, Tanegashima’s contact with outsiders has extended to golf. American Carl Litton, who has designed golf courses around the world, washed up on the shores of Tanegashima at the beginning of the 1990s and created one of Japan’s finest – and least known – golf courses: Tanegashima Golf Resort.
Stunning barely begins to describe the course, which is centrally located, 30 minutes from the port and 10 minutes from the airport. Even on a gloomy day with few golfers, it was easy to see that this is one of Japan’s finest courses. If it was on the mainland, it would easily get a professional tournament, but its location, its remoteness, largely precludes that. On the other hand, the remote and beautiful location should make you want to go there even more.
It’s a resort to the extent that it has some decent lodging at the clubhouse, which sits on elevated ground overlooking the golf course, lakes and palm trees, half of Tanegashima and, beyond that, the Pacific Ocean.
Tanegashima Golf Course
Neither nine at Tanegashima presents you with an easy start. Both the first hole and the 10th hole are dogleg Par 5s with plenty of water to contend with. But most of the fairways at Tanegashima are fair and reasonably generous, while the greens are large and well maintained. It’s the perfect combination of challenge and relaxation, playing just over 6,500 yards off the regular tees. It’s not a flat course but the undulation is not steep. The second hole is a sharp dog-leg left Par 4 that has plenty of water on the right to keep you worried, but after that you head inland for three routine Par 4s and a long, downhill Par 3 (192 yards off the regular tees, as are all distances listed here).
The last three holes are more of a challenge. The seventh might only be 334 yards long but there’s water in front of the tee, all down the right side and in front of the green, so you have to play a tactical tee shot and a precise approach. The Par 3 eighth is only 167 yards, but you have to go over a slight valley to a raised green that is well protected at the front. Short here is not a good idea. You finish the front nine with a tough uphill Par 5 that curls around to the left and stays tight all the way to the green, which because of the elevation is hard to approach.
The Back 9
The back nine starts off with a double-dog Par 5 past the lake followed by a simple Par 3. Things get tougher after that. The 12th curls left with trees on either side and a tight green, while the 13th is going to be unlucky for many. It’s a vicious left-hander with an approach towards the ocean that has winds that can mess with your distance. The 14th is 390 yards uphill to a windy high point on the course, while the 15th is downhill from a tee ground with the best view of the day towards the ocean.
As with the front nine, the last three holes make you work. The 16th requires a tee shot skirting long grass on the right as the fairway curls away to a tightly placed green. The 187-yard 17th presents a host of problems from a ravine, water and a well-bunkered green. As you tee off toward the JAXA launching pad on the double-dog 18th, you’ll need a couple of rockets to cover the 570 yards to the green. And like the rockets that take off nearby, you’ll have to fly over water to get there.
While playing on empty golf courses is a joy, it’s sad that such a great course is stuck in the Pacific Ocean with a dwindling number of regulars. Tanegashima is close to perfection. If you don’t play there, it’s your loss.
Ibusuki Kaimon Golf Course
If you’re looking for a double dose of great golf at the far end of Japan, then you have to add Ibusuki Golf Club to your itinerary. While Tanegashima is a hidden classic, Ibusuki is a fairly well-known classic designed by legendary Japanese architect Seiichi Inoue and opened in 1968. It is also the venue for the 2019 Japan PGA Championship.
You have to feel that Karl Litton and Inoue are kindred spirits. They are both experts in bringing the best out of the natural contours of the land and Inoue must have been licking his lips when he was presented with the chance to make something of this strip of land on the slopes of Mt. Kaimon, a 1,000-meter oceanside volcano.
Like Tanegashima, Ibusuki is not strictly speaking an oceanside course, but the sea is part of the scenery, as is the near-perfect volcanic cone that is Mt. Kaimon, which provides a truly magnificent backdrop to many of the holes. Like Tanegashima, the modest clubhouse overlooks the course from its highest point with views over palm trees to the ocean.
Kicking off your round at Ibusuki is a straight downhill hole of 411 yards (all yards are off the regular tees, which measure 6,545 in total), which looks easier than it is. Unlike the second hole’s tee shot, which looks tougher than it is, as it’s a blind shot that requires a certain amount of accuracy to stay away from the trees. The Par 4 third and the Par 3 fourth present no problem, but the 552-yard fifth with an uphill green is much more of a challenge before you get to another simple Par 3. The seventh hole may be short, but it’s a nasty 346 yards with a blind tee shot over a rising fairway that then plunges sharply down before a steep, steep approach to the green. The 530-yard Par 5 eighth is also a challenge. Your tee shot must go right and downhill but the rest of the hole is uphill to the left. The ninth tee has a lovely view of the ocean and while you’re thinking of that, you may be deceived by the hazards in front of you. The fairway slopes right, but go too left and you could be in tree trouble.
The Back 9
The back nine starts with a gentle curve downhill and to the left that lulls you into a sense of ease that is soon disrupted by the 11th hole. Yes, it’s a straight, flat tee shot, but the uphill approach to the severely protected green is a bit of a heart-stopper. Not much room for error here. It seems that Inoue forgot to penalise players with enough tough bunkers on the front nine, so he more than makes up for it on the back nine. The 154-yard Par 3 12th shouldn’t present problems but the front bunker is intimidating and going left or long is dangerous. The Par 5 13th is straightforward, bunkers aside, but the blind tee shot on 14 requires accuracy to avoid the trees on the left and getting lost on the right. Fifteen is straight uphill toward Mt. Kaimon, but the last three holes are tricky. Everything on 16 slopes to the left but you have to cut the corner on the right to shorten the 395-yard hole, while 17 is a 164-yard Par 3 that is seemingly simple but somewhat devilish. Don’t go down the left as the lake snakes all the way to the green. The 18th is 476 yards uphill with more huge bunkers to pin your approach back.
Two astonishing courses that are somewhat off the beaten track, but Kagoshima is a short (100-minute) plane ride away and in these days of low-cost carriers, pretty cheap to get to. Both courses have sister hotels and can provide transportation and package deals. Kagoshima also has direct flights to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea and China.