What's it like to golf in Japan? FAQs when it comes to Asia's best kept golfing secret
Golf in Japan is as unique as the country itself. Across the more than 6,852 islands - including the four main islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Shikoku and Kyushu - there are no less than 2,349 golf courses, varying from revered top-100 courses to riverside pitch and putts. 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!
Booking a tee time in any non-English speaking country can be a challenge but it's getting progressively easier here in Japan. Though the market here is almost 100% domestic customers only, more and more courses have English-speaking staff on hand to deal with inquiries - you can check out the comprehensive golf course database at Golf-in-Japan.com for contact details of each course. Golf in Japan can also act as a bilingual concierge service to help with your booking as well. You can also drop us an info [at] air-golf [dot] com (email) and we will recommend you the right course for your location and play style. Large groups and competitions also welcome.
Booking through hotels and travel agents
Most hotels will be able to book a round for you, but if it's short notice then probably games played midweek on 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. This could be the best option if you don't fancy doing it yourself.
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 time in a hot spring), as well as the certainty of excellent service alongside 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, with spring and fall commanding the most expensive tee times. Japanese golfers love to play when Hanami (cherry blossom), Shinryoku (new green season) and Kouyou (autumn foliage) seasons are peaking. Winter and summer see the courses a lot quieter and this creates a perfect chance for a visiting golfer to experience Japanese golf at a fantastic value.
WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO GET TO A GOLF COURSE IN JAPAN?
Japan is renowned for its transportation, whether it's the always-punctual trains, endless local flight options (67 airports in all) and modern expressway road system, whichever you choose there is always a way to get you to your game on time!
Getting to a golf course in Japan 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 (bullet train). Depending on where you are traveling from the expense will vary, and do keep in mind that reserved seating can be costly. Slower local trains are also an option but they are busier and have a lot of stops.
You can check train times and best route options, including price, at Jorudan.
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, and they have an English website. Just remember you need to allow two days if shipping your clubs to any course within Japan, and the same for the return journey.
Getting to a golf course in Japan 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 will 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.
Renting a car is an easy option 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 and has 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.
Tips for driving to a golf course in Japan
Cars drive on the left in Japan, steering wheel is usually on the right.
Always allow an extra hour for driving to your destination. It's better to have an extra hour on the driving range than to be stuck in traffic when your tee time comes around.
Keep plenty of cash in the car for tolls.
It's best to fill the tank up outside of the car rental as they will charge a premium to refill.
Keep your driver's license and passport with you, and if possible the telephone number of a Japanese speaker just in case!
WHAT IS A JAPANESE CLUBHOUSE LIKE?
Arriving at the Club
Most clubhouses in Japan are on the extravagant side in a nod to the 80s bubble economy, which saw the popularity of golf explode across the country - and with it extortionate membership fees.
When you arrive at the clubhouse there will always be a few staff ready to take your bags and give you 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 letters), your email and your 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 to your cart and out to the course.
A note about dress codes for playing golf in Japan
In most public golf courses in Japan, they are not as strict about dress codes as on private courses, but it is always good to be dressed smart/casual in something like 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, it's best to ask the course (or whoever booked the game for you) before you go.
WHAT IS DIFFERENT ON A JAPANESE GOLF COURSE?
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. As you tee up, you will see 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 acts as a guide. Usually, when the next group passes the flag it is generally OK to play away. If you're a long hitter though, it's better to hang on another minute or two.
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! Love 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 (can be yellow and black) indicate an area like an OB line. If your ball crosses it 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.
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). 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 it's in season it's quick growing and has a thick root system.
Why are there two greens on a Japanese golf course?
It was popular in Japan to have two greens on every hole, particularly for courses built before the '90s. The idea was to have a winter green of bentgrass and a summer of korai grass. These days the same courses will plant both greens with bentgrass and alternate them to allow for recovery and aeration treatment. A good tip is if you're going by the course yardage markers, the right side of the fairway markers will indicate the right green and the distance to its center, and the left markers will indicate the left green and the center distance.
The dreaded Japanese 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.
That said, the dedicated greenkeepers are relentlessly checking during and after the rounds to make sure their greens are top-notch.
DO YOU HAVE TO HAVE LUNCH AFTER NINE HOLES?
Just roll with it!
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 practise 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. Slurping down some soba or udon noodles is a great way to get your energy levels up before getting back out on the course.
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 as you cannot hold up the group behind!
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER A ROUND OF GOLF IN JAPAN?
After the round head back to the clubhouse and let the caddies know if you will take your clubs with you, or that you will be shipping them back to your hotel or home using Takubin.
A top tip when shipping your clubs: When you first place the shipping order, select return journey and they will have the return form pre-filled for you and attached to your golf bag. Let the reception staff know when you check out that you will be shipping your clubs, and they will double-check that all your paperwork for the Takubin service is in order.
Clean your golf shoes!
Japanese golfers are meticulous about cleanliness and in most golf courses you will find an area to clean your shoes, usually containing an air gun, wet brush and drying cloth, close to the entrance of the clubhouse. A lot of courses also feature a drying room - somewhere you can hang wet clothes and gloves which comes in very handy during the rainy season (June-July)!
WHAT ARE ONSEN (HOT SPRINGS) AFTER GOLF?
A post-game soak
After golf, one of the best things about the Japan golf experience is bathing in an onsen (hot spring). There is nothing better for a tired body, and onsen are renowned for their healing properties. However, there are a few things to remember as far as etiquette is concerned.
When you arrive back at your locker grab your change of clothes and head to the bathroom, there are usually some baskets to store your clothes. De-robe here, take a provided small courtesy 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 the 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.
Note that if you have a tattoo, it's best to cover it up with a plaster or bandage, as there still is an association between tattoos and yakuza in Japan. However, most Japanese clubhouses recognise that a foreigner with a tattoo does not mean you are part of the mafia - so most likely you will be able to bathe without issue!
THE WRAP UP
Golf in Japan is something you HAVE 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.
Don't forget if you have any questions about golf in Japan, you can send us an info [at] air-golf [dot] com (email) and we will do our best to help you out.