Friday, October 31, 2008

Kawana - Fuji Course

Add ImageMount Fuji

The Kawana Fuji course (ranked #80 in the world) is often called Japan's Pebble Beach because it is a golf resort set on cliffs near the ocean. The course is accessible only to hotel guests. Kawana is located in Shizuoka Prefecture, two hours from Tokyo on the Izu Peninsula. It is located within a national park on Sagami Bay. The course was completed in 1936 by Charles H. Alison, partner of the great H.S. Colt. Alison took a vacation at the Kawana hotel in 1930 and convinced the owner that he should use the amazing land here to build a golf course.

During the Second World War almost all the golf courses in Japan had to be converted into farmland to produce food. The remaining courses were taken over by the occupation forces. Hotel Kawana was taken over by the U.S. Eighth Army and was later handed over to the Australian troops to be converted to a recreation center.

Unfortunately, we played Kawana on a rainy day. When you travel 6,500 miles to play a course, you're going to play no matter the weather. I didn't have a particularly good nights sleep since rain was pelting the windows all night long. We delayed the tee time an hour because at breakfast it was still raining like a monsoon. We played the first three holes in a downpour, but luckily the weather got progressively better as we went along. The picture at the top of this post is of the 12,388 foot high Mt. Fuji, which you can see from the course only about a half-dozen times a year, given the vagaries of the weather patterns near the mountain.

Kawana is a beautiful Alison course with brilliant use of terrain, a lot of shot variety, beautiful bunkering and memorable par threes. The start at Kawana is one of the best in the world. You tee off from a high, elevated tee down into a narrow fairway with a view of the water in the distance. It reminded me a bit of the first tee shot at Spyglass. The drop off the elevated tee is quite dramatic, and drops about 100 feet. Riviera has a similar elevated first tee shot. My estimate is that the drop in elevation here is probably twice as high as the one at Riviera.


Looking down the fairway from the 1st tee at Kawana

You can see from the picture taken off the second tee that the elevation change at Kawana can be quite acute throughout the course.

k2 fairway

2nd fairway with big sweeping hill

The third hole, pictured below, is narrow and the landing area is at an odd angle from the teeing area. The hole plays significantly longer than the 450 yards on the card. Kawana reminded me of playing in Northern California at times. Variously, it looks like either The Olympic Club, Spyglass and Pebble Beach. This hole reminded me of the narrowness at Olympic.

K3 Fairway

The narrow third fairway at Kawana

The greens are generally round and fairly small at Kawana. This one, of the fourth green, below, is typical of what you will find in terms of green shape or size.

k4 round green

4th green at Kawana

The greens at Kawana are almost always elevated, as was typical of Alison's design style. They are also well-bunkered, as you can see from the most acute example on the course seen below, on the 18th hole.


The 18th green at Kawana

This picture below was taken on the 17th fairway. As an island nation, the weather in Japan is changeable. One of the great aspects of playing golf is being out in the elements. Sometimes you catch the weather just right. Other times you have to adjust to the conditions at hand and enjoy the moment. Low clouds were blowing through quickly as we played the back nine. As the clouds lifted, it revealed the high mountains in the background. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time. It was probably a result of jet-leg, too little sleep and a mild hangover, but a couple of times while playing Kawana it felt like an out-of-body experience. Playing the 17th hole was a magical moment and illustrative of how enchanting playing in Japan was.


17th fairway at Kawana

The terrain is so steep throughout the course that to get to the 5th tee box you have to take an outdoor escalator. I have taken an elevator before during a round of golf, namely, at Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles, but this is the first time I've taken an escalator.

Escalator to the par three 5th hole

The natural undulations of the terrain can also be seen well in this picture of the 9th fairway, below, looking backward from the green.

k9 back from green

9th fairway at Kawana

The 15th at Kawana is clearly one of the world's greatest golf holes. It is a par five that plays next to the Pacific Ocean on a high cliff with dramatic views. You hit over a deep ravine to a fairway below you and to the right. This part of the course feels a lot like Pebble Beach.


The dramatic 15th hole at Kawana

After your tee shot the hole plays uphill and the fairway slopes from the right side to the left, toward the water. You are not immediately adjacent to the water; there is a buffer of bushes and you can clearly hear the waves crashing below you and see the water in the distance over the dense foliage.

k15 fwy-2

Uphill 2nd shot from the 15th fairway

The best view of how much waving and rippling there is in the fairway can be seen in this shot, below, taken from the green looking back on fifteen.

k15 looking back

15th hole looking back from green

Hitting your approach shot long to the 15th hole is not recommended, as you can see the steep drop off behind the green.

k15 green from behind

15th green as seen from behind

Planet Golf compares the terrain at Kawana to Turnberry, Mid Ocean and Pebble Beach. I've been lucky enough to play all three and agree that Kawana belongs in this small group of the world's most scenic courses. The difference at Kawana is that there is thick foliage between the edge of the cliffs and the course, but you can see the water from virtually the entire course.

Holes thirteen through fifteen are fabulous holes, as is the finish generally. Seventeen and eighteen both play uphill and are difficult holes. The only weak stretch of holes is eleven and twelve, which appear a bit out of character with the rest of the course. The Korai greens, a thick bladed (like bermuda) grass, are slow.

Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe stayed at Kawana on their honeymoon in 1954, and my sense is that the beds in the rooms are still the same ones. The resort is a bit dated, and the dining room has the ambiance of a corporate cafeteria, but if you are in Japan it is worth the two hour journey south of Tokyo to see this C.H. Alison beauty.

Since Kawana is a public course, it is the only way most people can play a course designed by Charles Alison, the maestro of golf course design in Japan. A round of golf at Kawana is ¥26,500 or about $265.

I would personally rank Kawana higher than #80 in the world.

Kawana's website

Two interesting photos from the late 1940s showing American soldiers at Kawana during the occupation. Note the American flag flying over the pool:

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Japanese Golf Etiquette - A 12 Step Program

Near the first tee at Naruo

Japan is a highly ritualized and organized society. Playing golf in Japan is no exception to their ordered lives. There is a strict protocol and structure to playing in the land of the rising sun. Playing in Japan can be more accurately described as a day of golf rather than a round of golf. This is not a country where you throw your bag over your shoulder and walk nine holes after work. Having just completed playing the top three private courses and one resort course, I can offer the following advice to my fellow golf adventurers traveling to Japan:

1. Play with long pants - Golf at a private course requires long pants. Japan is a very hot and humid country and it would be nice to wear shorts, but long pants are required at private clubs.

2. Wear a jacket upon arrival. Like at the exclusive Garden City Golf Club in New York and Muirfield in Scotland, the proper protocol when arriving at a private Japanese club is to wear a jacket.

3. Arrive on time. Don't arrive early and don't arrive late. In a country where subway trains arrive the second they are supposed to, there is a premium put on punctuality. Bow when you meet your host and thank him profusely for hosting you. Bring a small gift and give it to your host when you meet him.

4. Check-in. When you arrive at the club for the round you will be greeted with a reception area similar to a hotel check-in. You will be given a little card holder and locker key with a number on the front. If you want to buy something in the pro-shop or halfway house, you sign the chits with your assigned number and everything is charged to the card. As you leave, you settle the bill. As with most payments in Japan, credit cards are accepted but as with most transactions in Japan, they prefer cash.

The caddie assignments at Tokyo golf club

5. A pre-round cup of coffee. If your host offers you a cup of coffee before the round, have it. All three hosts offered me coffee before the round, which you take sitting in the grill room as a prelude to the round.

6. No tipping. There is no tipping in Japan, period. This includes caddies, locker room attendants, etc.

7. Sign the sheet the caddie hands you. When you go out to play you will have a female caddie. She will have your bag already loaded on a cart and will have counted your clubs. You are asked to sign off on the number of clubs in your bag before teeing off and at the conclusion of the round. Since she won't speak English and the sheet she hands you is in kanji characters, it took me a while to understand what I was being asked to sign.

A Japanese caddy

8. Lunch after nine holes. Unlike in the U.K. and the U.S., you stop after nine holes and have lunch. Lunch includes a beer before and coffee afterwards. I got a couple of dirty looks when I tried to skip either the beer or coffee, so I suggest having both. If you are not an adventerous eater and are worried about getting fish heads or some exotic dish, most courses have a curried rice dish that you can always fall back on. Some courses will give you a back nine starting time as you go in for lunch, others allow you to tee off on the back when you are ready. You will stiffen up pretty good at lunch, usually making the 10th hole an interesting hole.

9. Post-round communal hot bath. After the round, the fun really begins. The pièce de résistance of any Japanese golfing experience is the bath, known as o-furo. Your locker will contain a pair of small plastic slippers that will be about three sizes too small for your feet. After you finish playing, take off your golf shoes and put on the slippers. Leave your clothes on, but take a change of clothes with you. Head toward the bath area. As you enter, take off your slippers and walk to a changing area filled with baskets. This is where you take off your clothes and grab a small towel.

Whatever you do at this point, do not grab a large towel, it is a big breach of protocol. You then enter the shower area with your hand towel. There are western style showers available which are acceptable to use, but most Japanese men sit on foot-high little wooden stools and wash themselves vigorously out in a big open area. Japanese men are very reserved in all aspects of their lives except washing themselves in public. They embrace the task with such élan that I was taken aback each time I saw it.

After you have finished cleaning up, the custom is to take a communal hot bath. We're talking buck naked, boys. No towels to hide behind and no bathing suits allowed. Picture fifteen of your geriatric best friends together in a large hot tub immersed in water up to your neck, and you get the idea. Some of the bathers put the little towel on top of their heads during the bath, which makes them look like some sort of escapee from a lunatic asylum. The whole thing looks like it comes straight out of a Fellini movie.

The biggest faux pas possible would be to jump right into the hot tub without first showering. You would show yourself to be the ultimate gaijin (foreigner)and I shudder to think what would happen. It's the equivalent of peeing into a swimming pool back home.

Once you get it through your head that this ritual is not some sort of trick designed so that everyone can stare at your chibi anatomy, the whole bath routine is a nice way to finish off your round and does help your back feel better. Be warned that the scalding water can lead to an unexpected contraction of your most important organ.

Leaving the shower area, you must put the slippers back on after you dress to walk back to your locker, but only after stepping out of the area with the baskets. It is hard to remember the precise sequence of all these steps since there are so many little nuances. The first time I did this whole thing I got some disapproving stares because I walked to the bath area wearing only my BVDs. Oops. Saru mo ki kara ochiru (everyone makes mistakes).

10. Post-round drink. Have a post-round drink, usually beer, and try to regain your dignity.

11. Learn the word arigato. Arigato means thank you in Japanese. If you say it about 300 times a round, you're off to a good start. It is also ok to say, 'goo shot' if a Japanese player hits a good shot. I know it sounds goofy, but it's a bastardized English expression that you will hear often.

12. No gimmie putts. I'm not sure if this is true all over Japan, but the members I played with at all three courses didn't give any putts. Not even a three inch putt.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Shinkansen - The Bullet Train

A bullet train passing Mt. Fuji

We took the Shinkansen yesterday from Tokyo to Kobe to play the two highest rated courses in Japan - Naruo and Hirono. The Shinkansen goes at a maximum speed of 188 miles per hour and is more commonly known as the bullet train. The train has a smooth ride, but to be honest was a bit of a disappointment since you don't really feel how fast the train is going while you're on it. The other problem with the train is that the view out the window isn't exactly of the French countryside.

Japan is a highly industrialized, developed nation where essentially every square inch of land that is not mountainous is fully developed. If your cup of tea is poorly designed housing units and factories, you'll love the view.

Bullet train arriving in Tokyo Station

Several things did catch my attention though. One is the continued politeness of the Japanese. The train conductors bow each time they enter or exit a car and are highly respectful, as is everyone here. The other thing that was ideal is that no-one, repeat no-one speaks into their cell phones on the train. There are only small areas of the train where cell phone use is allowed and it makes for a very pleasant ride.

The golf here is incredible, I will be putting up my course reviews between now and year end, and you will be amazed at the quality of the courses.

A sneak preview below, Kawana's 15th hole:

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Japanese Driving Ranges

Japan is a golf obsessed country and has driving ranges located everywhere. Whenever you drive down the highway you will see tall green netting, indicating a driving range. Since land is at such a premium, the ranges are small in shape and vertical - usually three stories. The range below is in the city of Osaka and is three levels.

Most of the ranges are mechanized - a ball pops up after you hit your ball and the ball cleaning machines are automated, scraping across the ground to retrieve the balls.

The Japanese are golf obsessed and it's quite a sight to go to a driving range at 10:00pm at night and see all the range players hitting balls.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Japanese Caddies

Caddies in Japan are women in helmet-like hats draped with long white hankerchiefs, long pants and long sleeved shirts

Friday, October 10, 2008

Golf in Japan - Arrival

Well, here I am.

I made it to Japan. Fourteen and half hours and thirteen time zones later, I arrived at Narita airport in Tokyo. Tokyo is the largest metropolitan area in the world - with 35.5 million people. The next three largest are significantly smaller: Mexico City 19.2 million, Mumbai 18.8 million and New York 18.6 million.

Japan is a golf obsessed country. It has 2,300 courses, which is more courses than Scotland. I am looking forward to the trip. According to Links Magazine it is customary in Japan to stop for a full lunch, hot-springs immersion and an hour-long massage after nine holes. Bring it on!

We are past tsuyu (the rainy season), so hopefully the weather will cooperate with us. Time permitting, I also hope to rise early one morning and see Tsukiji , the world's biggest fish market. Perhaps some Sumo wrestling, and hopefully we'll have time to catch a Japanese baseball game.

Elevated expressway through Tokyo

The first course built in Japan was the Rokko golf club in 1901, near Kobe. In 1930, Joe Kirkwood and Walter Hagen went to Japan at the invitation of the Japan Golf Association and played ten exhibition matches. After their visit, golf started to take off, with thirty courses built in the next few years.

Many of the courses in Japan have two sets of greens because the summers are so hot and humid, the idea is to lessen the wear on just one set of greens. Japan is a small country with a large population, a lot of the land is steep mountainsides unsuitable for living or golf. There is a law against converting farmland to golf courses.

One name I have already become familiar with is C.H. Alison, a British golf course architect who visited Japan in the 1930s and was responsible for almost all the world-ranked courses in the country.

My course lineup includes:

Hirono Golf Club (ranked # 35) - Japan's most distinguished golf club
Naruo Golf Club (ranked #75) - Japan's Hidden Gem
The Kawana Fuji course (ranked #80) - Japan's Pebble Beach
Tokyo Golf Club - The most prestigious club in Tokyo

I'm eager to expand my vocabulary, my waistline and my golf repertoire. Get the Kobe beef ready and keep the Sapporo chilled. The American Embassy has warned the Japanese people - for the next week - bring the women and children indoors. The complete jackass gaijin (foreigner) has arrived.

I will post frequently to keep you up to date.