Golf in Japan: From Stunning Courses to Unique Traditions

In this video, join me on a personal journey through the dynamic evolution of golf course architecture, shaped by my experiences playing on renowned courses across the U.S. and Japan. Having lived in the U.S. for over 25 years, I've had the privilege of teeing off on iconic courses like Pine Valley, Merion, Winged Foot, Oakmont, and many other highly-ranked courses.

Together, we'll delve into the profound influence of legendary architects and navigate the unique challenges posed by Japan's climate. I'll be sharing captivating photos and videos captured during my rounds on renowned courses like Pine Valley, Kawana Hotel Fuji Course, Kasumigaseki Country Club, Ibaraki Golf Club, and more. Through these visuals, I'll unveil the stories behind the two greens, unravel the mysteries of the fascinating world of Korai grass, and delve into the enduring impacts of esteemed architects. Join me as I guide you through a journey enriched with personal anecdotes and discoveries. Throughout my golfing adventures, I've embraced Japanese traditions and playing styles, infusing a distinctive flavor into the overall golfing experience.

From encountering legendary golfers to immersing myself in captivating traditions, I'm excited to guide you through a golfing adventure unlike any other. So, join me as we dive into this video, where I not only share a meticulously crafted narrative but also draw from my firsthand experiences, showcasing the entirety of the content and exhibits.

Video's Narrative and Timestamped Index

1. Introduction

Welcome to Golf in Japan, where we unveil another marvel of this captivating country. Join us as we navigate through diverse landscapes, capturing glimpses of ever-changing scenes across the four seasons. From cherry blossoms in spring to the lush green fairways of summer, the tapestry of autumn foliage, and the winter courses adorned with mountain-top snow and uniquely colored fairways – a surprising spectacle that will leave you intrigued. In this video, we explore the enchanting realm of Japanese golf courses and architecture, showcasing scenic mountain-side courses that proudly exhibit Japan's unique landscape. Throughout the video, indulge in a visual feast with captivating photos of Japanese golf courses, highlighting unique aspects of golf traditions and styles. Now, let's dive into the captivating stories, saving the detailed photo showcase for the grand finale.

2. Number of Golfers and Courses in Japan

Did you know? Japan proudly holds the title of the world's second-highest number of golf courses, trailing just behind the United States. With over 8 million golfers in Japan, Japan offers a diverse range of golfing experiences, from traditional courses to innovative alternatives, catering to players of all levels.


The widespread presence of courses reflects the historical popularity of golf in Japan. Today, the sport boasts a diverse community of players, spanning all ages and experience levels.

3. General Characters of Golf Courses in Japan

Now, let's explore the distinctive features that set Japanese golf courses apart. Despite being an island country, Japan offers captivating golf course scenery that diverges from the windswept links courses popular in Britain. Many Japanese courses are nestled on mountainsides, showcasing a landscape that uniquely reflects the country's cultural and geographical features. These courses seamlessly integrate nature's beauty with traditional Japanese garden principles, featuring strategically placed trees, meticulously raked sand bunkers, and carefully positioned water features. These elements not only enhance aesthetics but also inject strategic challenges that reward thoughtful shot selection, creating an experience that mirrors the harmony and tranquility found in traditional Japanese gardens.

While Japanese golfers generally prefer flat courses, obtaining flat land for golf courses proves challenging due to the exorbitant prices of flat land, particularly around cities. The high demand for land in urban areas has significantly driven up costs, making it difficult to create expansive and flat golf courses to meet the preferences of local golf enthusiasts. Prestigious golf courses in Japan, however, are often strategically located on flat terrain, a notable feat given the scarcity and high prices of flat land not too far from urban areas, ensuring accessibility for enthusiasts seeking a premium golfing experience without venturing too far from the cities.

4. Golf Course Evolution and Architecture

Before we delve further into the unique landscapes and design of Japanese courses, let's turn back the clock to 1901. Our journey begins in the vibrant port city of Kobe, where the story of Japanese golf took root. Atop Mount Rokko, a modest four-hole course was completed, marking the country's initial venture into the sport. Credited for its creation is British expatriate Arthur Hasketh Groom, whose passion and initiative helped lay the foundation for Japan's enduring love affair with golf. The course underwent expansion, and by 1903, it transformed into a 9-hole course, officially opened as the "Kobe Golf Club," the first golf club in Japan. » Learn More

4A. Charles Hugh Alison - A Renowned British Architect

Transitioning from landscapes to architects, Charles Hugh Alison, a renowned British architect, played a significant role in shaping the diverse topography of Japanese golf courses in the early 20th century. Collaborating with figures like Harry Colt, Alison left a lasting legacy through iconic designs, including Hirono Golf Club and Kawana Hotel Golf Course's Fuji Course, both consistently ranked among the world's top courses. His collaboration with Seiichi Inoue on the renovation project of Kasumigaseki's East course had a profound impact on the Japanese golf landscape. Although his design for the Tokyo Golf Club no longer exists, his influence extended beyond his initial designs. Additionally, in advisory roles during remodeling projects at Naruo Golf Club and Ibaraki Golf Club, he played a key part in guiding the evolution of these courses. His brief yet profound influence on these projects serves as evidence of his lasting legacy.

After spending just three months in Japan, he entrusted his construction foreman, George Penglace, to oversee the continuation of the project even after he left, ensuring that his vision was thoroughly brought to fruition. Alison's principles of design reached far beyond the courses he worked on, leaving a lasting imprint on the broader golfing landscape of Japan. His approach to bunkering holds particular significance, as he emphasized strategic bunker placement, not just for aesthetics but to add challenge and reward thoughtful play. This approach remains a defining characteristic of Japanese golf course design to this day. In Japan, any deep bunker on the green side is often referred to as an 'Alison Bunker,' a testament to his lasting impact.

Beyond his shaping influence, Alison's design philosophy extended to other legendary courses. While many golfers may not be aware, his expertise also left a mark on masterpieces like Cypress Point Club in California, St Andrews Old Course in Scotland, and Royal Melbourne Golf Club in Australia. These collaborations and solo designs further solidified his reputation as a leading architect, influencing generations of golfers and course designers around the world.

Now, let's delve further into Alison's design philosophy, particularly his approach to bunkering, which holds significant importance in Japan. With nine years spent in the U.S., contributing to the design of over 20 courses, including the iconic Pine Valley project from 1918 to 1922, Alison brought a wealth of experience to Japan. Inspired by his American projects, Alison's philosophy emphasized strategic bunker placement, aiming not only for aesthetics but to introduce challenge and reward thoughtful play. This approach continues to define Japanese golf course design.

“Golf” 4B. Other Notable Architects

As we reflect on the profound impact of Charles Hugh Alison on Japanese golf course architecture, it is essential to trace the trajectory of his legacy and how it seamlessly intertwined with the emerging careers of Seiichi Inoue, Shiro Akaboshi, and Rokuro Akaboshi. During Alison's time in Japan, he collaborated closely with these significant Japanese architects. Seiichi Inoue, in particular, began his journey into golf course design under Alison's mentorship, serving as an assistant during the redesign project of the Kasumigaseki East course. Shiro and Rokuro Akaboshi, influenced by Alison, also played vital roles in shaping the diverse topography of Japanese golf courses. The era, marked by the construction of numerous golf courses across Japan, witnessed the fusion of Alison, Inoue, and the Akaboshi brothers' influences, leaving an enduring legacy in the world of golf course architecture.

This experience with Alison marked the beginning of Inoue's distinguished career. His first independent design, the Kasumigaseki West course, heralded the inception of his influence on Japanese golf course architecture. Subsequently, Inoue's impact extended to renowned courses like Oharai and Ryuugasaki, solidifying his position as a prominent figure in the field. His influence further extends with the design of Musashi Country Club's two courses, followed by the highly regarded Ibaraki Golf Club's West course, and the Tokyo Yomiuri Golf Club, known for its notable 18th hole, gaining recognition in Japan, leaving an indelible mark on the golfing landscape. Celebrated among Japanese golf enthusiasts, Inoue's architectural brilliance continues to thrive, immortalized in these iconic courses. The esteemed architect passed away in 1981 at the age of 73, leaving behind a lasting legacy in the world of golf course architecture.

As we delve into the intricate tapestry of Japanese golf course architecture, a fascinating thread emerges during the transformative years spanning the 1950s to the 1980s. This era saw the prolific architect Seiichi Inoue leaving a lasting legacy on the landscape, introducing a distinctive concept that would shape many courses—double greens. This innovative approach, featuring two separate putting surfaces on each hole, not only added complexity and strategy to the game but also addressed a unique challenge faced by Japanese golf courses. The scarcity of suitable bent grass for warmer climates prompted Inoue to explore alternatives. The potential inspiration for this groundbreaking idea may be traced back to the 9th hole of Pine Valley, where the story, possibly shared by Charles Hugh Alison with Seiichi Inoue, could have influenced Inoue's vision for the evolving Japanese golf course architecture.

Following Inoue’s impactful legacy, we turn our attention to three influential figures who further shaped Japan's golfing landscape—Pete Dye, Robert Trent Jones Jr., and Jack Nicklaus. Their visionary contributions during this era continued to redefine golf course architecture, leaving a lasting mark on the tapestry of Japan's golfing heritage.

In addition to Jack Nicklaus, a multitude of legendary players made substantial contributions to Japan's golfing landscape during this transformative era. Renowned figures such as Walter Hagen, credited for Koganei Country Club, Gene Saracen's significant role in RoPe Club, and Tom Watson's design of the Tom Watson Golf Course, along with contributions from various Japanese golf icons including Isao Aoki, Jambo Ozaki, and Tommy Nakajima, collectively played pivotal roles in sculpting the golfing landscape, infusing it with diversity and challenges across courses in Japan.

As we explore the dynamic evolution of Japanese golf course architecture, we uncover the enduring legacies crafted by legendary golfers, spanning the global stage and Japan itself. Notable personalities like Walter Hagen, the mind behind Koganei Country Club, along with Gene Saracen's contribution to Rope Club, and Tom Watson designed Tom Watson Golf Course, seamlessly translated their championship experiences into the realm of golf course design. Simultaneously, Japanese golf icons, including Isao Aoki, Jambo Ozaki, and Tommy Nakajima, played pivotal roles in shaping the golfing landscape, infusing it with diversity and challenges across courses in Japan.

4C. Two Green Courses and Korai Grass

Amidst the cranes and bulldozers transforming the Japanese landscape, it's crucial to note the unique phenomenon of two-green courses in Japan. While many courses designed by international stalwarts like Pete Dye and Robert Trent Jones Jr. follow the one-green model, Japan boasts an array of two-green courses. Now, let’s delve into the fascinating story of korai grass and the distinctive world of two-green courses, unraveling the intricacies that make them a captivating feature of Japan's golfing heritage.

In various regions of Japan, golf courses feature a diverse range of grass types, with the choice often influenced by the local climate. For instance, in areas with colder temperatures during winter, a few courses may opt for bent grass for fairways, but the majority lean towards the use of korai (Zoysia japonica). This warm-season grass is renowned for its resilience and adaptability, making it a popular selection across many courses in Japan. Korai grass, or korai-shiba, is notable for its unique characteristic of gradually turning tan-colored and almost white in winter. This visual transformation, which may surprise golfers accustomed to vibrant green grass, is noteworthy, given that korai grass tends to thin out during the winter months, influencing playing conditions.


Traditionally, two-green courses commonly used a mix of korai and bent grasses. However, with the development of bent grass varieties suitable for warmer climates, some courses transitioned to both greens featuring bent grass. Others opted to abandon one or both korai greens entirely. This evolving green design strategy has added an intriguing dynamic to the golfing experience in Japan, harmonizing tradition with modern adaptability. Notably, Kawana Golf Course distinguishes itself by exclusively retaining korai for its putting greens, making it the sole course among the world's top-ranking courses with this unique choice.

With such a vibrant golfing scene, Japan offers a plethora of unique aspects to discover. In the following segments, we'll explore the cultural nuances, fascinating traditions, and unforgettable experiences that set golfing in Japan apart. So, stay tuned and prepare to be surprised!

5. Unique Aspects of Golf in Japan

5A. Membership Systems in Japan

During the 1980s and 1990s in Japan, the golfing landscape experienced a surge in construction, marked by not only the flourishing of elite golf clubs but also the widespread adoption of the Deposit Membership System. Under this system, individuals acquired membership status and obtained certificates by making a deposit, a value that frequently increased over time, turning these certificates into valuable assets. However, challenges emerged as economic downturns in the early 1990s led to financial struggles for many clubs, impacting the refunding of these deposits. This dynamic system, while offering diverse membership options, faced obstacles that continued to shape the economic dynamics of golf certificates in Japan.

The Deposit Membership System, despite facing its own set of challenges, introduced a unique dynamic to the golf membership landscape. Golf membership certificates, once appreciating and becoming expensive, now reflect a diverse range of options catering to varying needs and budgets. Surprisingly, even within this system, it is estimated that approximately 25% to 30% of frequent golfers in Japan own membership certificates.

However, challenges persist within this system, particularly for golf club operators grappling with difficulties in refunding deposits—a legacy of economic downturns that started in the early 1990s and lasted until today. This chapter explores the intricacies of refunding issues, shedding light on instances where many clubs filed a petition for "reorganization" bankruptcy. In some cases, it further discusses how golf course lands were repurposed for solar power generation companies, underscoring the profound impact of economic shifts on Japan's golfing scene.

5B. Declining Numbers of Golf Courses

While various sources may present slightly different figures, it's generally agreed that Japan experienced a peak in its number of operational golf facilities at around 2,400 in 2004. However, a closer look at the R&A report 'Golf Around the World 2021' reveals a more comprehensive perspective, reporting a total of 3,140 golf courses, 45,165 holes, and 2,202 facilities. The interchangeable use of the words 'course' and 'facility' can contribute to variations in reported numbers and confusion often. Subsequent reports suggest a potential decline, with approximately 2,133 golf facilities in operation in 2023. The multifaceted nature of the golf landscape in Japan is evident in these figures, with the R&A report indicating 2,383 golf facilities in 2015 and 2,227 in 2019. The ongoing trend of declining numbers of golf facilities and courses continues in Japan.

5C. Booking Tee Times and Playing Golf

Despite facing challenges such as a declining golfing population and reduced course maintenance, positive changes have emerged in the Japanese golfing landscape. Notably, accessibility has significantly improved, thanks to online booking services like Rakuten and GDO, simplifying tee time scheduling. Furthermore, adjustments in pricing structures by some courses have led to more affordable green fees, benefiting golf enthusiasts.

However, golfers in Japan encounter a unique challenge in the form of a golf course usage tax, which varies based on location and course prestige. Typically integrated into green fees, this tax, capped at 1200 yen per day, imposes a financial burden on players. Moreover, the national consumption tax, set at 10%, is specifically applied to green fees, compounding the financial challenges for golfers. Notably, Japan stands alone in imposing such a tax exclusively on golf. It's crucial to emphasize that the usage tax is a daily charge, requiring even golfers playing 9 holes to pay the tax each time. This accentuates the financial implications for both players and golf courses.

Excluding private clubs and high-end public courses, playing golf in Japan typically costs between 5,000 and 8,000 yen on weekdays and 10,000 to 15,000 yen on weekends, with online booking systems facilitating easy comparison. Recent years have seen increased accessibility for single players through these platforms. Traditionally, it was and remains nearly impossible for individuals to enjoy a spontaneous round of golf by simply visiting courses during their free time; a reservation is a requisite for solo players. Most courses mandate reservations and may levy additional fees for twosomes. However, booking for threesomes is generally more straightforward, albeit with occasional extra charges.

Moreover, location significantly influences golf course pricing in Japan, especially regarding proximity and accessibility. Golfers in major cities balance cost, accessibility, and time-saving factors when choosing a course, showcasing diverse preferences.

5D. Golf Industry's Transition

Post-COVID-19, Japan observes a surge in golfers, particularly among the younger demographic. Outdoor appeal and inherent social distancing contribute to this rise. As retiring baby boomer golfers phase out, the industry undergoes a transition. Greens fees have slightly increased, reflecting economic shifts and recent inflationary pressures. This highlights the dynamic nature of Japan's golfing community, shaped by evolving demographics and economic factors.

Beyond the sheer number of courses and golfers as well as green fees, what truly sets golfing in Japan apart? Let's delve into some unique traditions, stunning landscapes, and unexpected cultural aspects that contribute to the unforgettable experience.

5E. Golf Course Amenities

While many Japanese public courses offer impressive amenities like large dining rooms, locker rooms, pro shops, and even bath tabs, the incorporation of traditional 'Onsens' hot spring is occasionally seen. Despite financial constraints, certain courses manage to provide a luxurious and culturally immersive environment, ensuring a unique post-game experience in therapeutic hot springs. The commitment to cleanliness and service excellence within the clubhouse aligns with the high standards of Japanese hospitality, showcasing the dynamic nature of Japan's golf industry and catering to sports enthusiasts and those seeking a holistic experience.


Check-in procedures at Japanese courses can be more formal compared to some regions. Upon arrival, you'll typically head to a designated counter instead of a pro shop. Similar to other check-in processes, you'll be greeted, receive a locker key, and may be asked to fill out a brief form. This typically includes your address, phone number, and your age. Your age is asked for tax purposes, as senior golfers and students often qualify for exemptions or discounted rates on golf course usage tax. Nowadays, many courses have embraced technology, offering apps like Rakuten's to simplify check-in and save time.

5F. Playing Styles and Unique Golf Carts

A noteworthy aspect of Japanese golf is the prevalent use of carts at public courses, often being a requirement. Although traditionally widespread at these golfing facilities, the utilization of caddies has experienced a significant decline. Among a few golfers who value tradition, however, caddy services remain a preferred choice, ensuring the continuation of this option. Importantly, at many public courses, cart fees are conveniently bundled into the green fees, simplifying the booking process and enhancing the overall golfing experience.

While cart golf has become the standard in Japan, some prestigious clubs still maintain the tradition of walking the course. Here, caddies are mandatory, offering a unique and classic experience. One caddy typically assists a foursome, carrying clubs in a specialized pushcart designed to accommodate multiple players. Interestingly, most caddies in Japan are female, often wearing distinctive uniforms, adding to the distinct character of the country's golfing scene.

It's essential to underscore that the majority of golf carts in Japan diverge from what you might be accustomed to; they are larger and crafted to comfortably seat four golfers along with a caddy if one is present. Traditionally, with one caddy assigned per foursome, the caddy's role varies somewhat from those in other regions. They distribute the required clubs, tidy up golf balls on the green, assist in reading greens upon request, offer valuable insights into course strategy, and even provide etiquette guidance for beginners. This unique blend of tradition and modern convenience defines the golfing experience in Japan. Although the use of caddies has evolved, it remains a distinctive feature, especially prominent during corporate outings and tournaments.

It's noteworthy that golf carts on designated tracks are frequently encountered. These rail-bound carts ensure a smooth and efficient flow of play, with a distinctive feature being the added remote on-off functionality. This allows golfers to control the cart's movement, providing convenience during their rounds.

Interestingly, a less common, yet unique feature in some courses is the use of these same tracks for carts carrying only caddie bags. This allows golfers to enjoy the benefits of walking golf without the burden of carrying their clubs themselves. As highlighted in the video, this inventive approach is demonstrated at Nikko Kirifuri Country Club, taking the golfing experience to new heights. In addition to rail-bound carts, the club introduces cable cars and an inclined moving walkway. This extraordinary blend not only adds a touch of novelty but also enables golfers to stroll the course without the hassle of carrying their clubs.

5G. Mid-Game Meals and Traditional Hot Tubs

One of the delightful surprises for many international golfers in Japan is the unique tradition of enjoying a mid-game meal. After completing the first nine holes, golfers have the opportunity to relax, refuel, and strategize for the second half of the round over a delicious and leisurely meal. This break typically lasts 45 minutes to an hour, allowing you to savor the food, socialize with fellow players, and plan your approach for the remaining holes. Before enjoying your meal, the staff will usually inform you of the tee time for the second nine holes, ensuring a smooth transition back to the course.

After a round, many courses in Japan offer the opportunity to unwind and rejuvenate with traditional hot tubs or other spa amenities—a fantastic way to combine golfing with relaxation and cultural immersion. As the day concludes, golfers in Japan embark on diverse journeys back home, each adding its own flavor to the overall golfing experience.

5H. Road Back to Home

While some may choose the convenience of the occasional railroad and club shuttle bus combination for a stress-free return, it's not the most widespread choice. This option not only allows golfers to savor the scenic landscapes and perhaps enjoy a refreshing beer but also provides a moment for reflection on the day's game while in transit. For those prioritizing a hassle-free journey, affordable services are now available to easily send golf bags and equipment directly from the golf course to home or hotel—an embodiment of the dedication to convenience ingrained in Japanese golf culture.

On the other hand, the open road beckons for some golfers. Affordable golf courses in Japan often reside far from the bustling heart of Tokyo, turning the journey back home into a long, contemplative drive. The expansive roadways, adorned with picturesque scenes, offer a unique post-game atmosphere. However, this tranquil drive can occasionally transform into a lengthier adventure, especially when traffic jams weave their way into the journey.

6. Ending Note

Regardless of the chosen route, the trip back home becomes a part of the golfing narrative—a time to unwind, relive the best shots, and perhaps plan the next golfing expedition. It's the final chapter in a day filled with camaraderie, strategy, and the pursuit of the perfect swing.

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