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