Golf in Japan is as unique as the country itself, there are over 6,852 islands including the four main islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Shikoku and Kyushu. There are 2,349 courses in Japan, varying from some revered top 100 courses to riverside pitch and putt. 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 much easier here in Japan. Most hotels will be able to book a round for you, but if it’s short notice then probably midweek and 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 but could be the best option if you don’t fancy doing it yourself.
Most clubhouses in Japan are on the extravagant side, a salute to the bubble economy which saw a golf explosion in Japan and with it hugely, exuberant membership fees. When you arrive at the clubhouse there will always be a few staff ready to take your bags and give 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.
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 your cart and out to the course.
In most public Golf courses in Japan, they are not as strict on dress codes as the private courses, but it is always good to be smart/casual – a collared shirt and trousers (not denim). Please take care of the type of attires such as color, pattern, design, and how you wear it. If you are in doubt about it best to ask the course (or whoever booked for you) before you go.
In most cases, the following generic dress codes should apply:
– Shirts without collar such as T-Shirts, jeans, cargo pants are usually not acceptable.
– It is not recommended to come to the golf club with a knee-length pants. It is required to wear socks hiding your ankles or knees length socks if you wear a knee-length pants while you play golf.
– Please wear jacket (no need a tie) when you go to golf club and change your clothes to golf wear in the locker room. All golf courses in Japan has locker room and you can use a locker.
– Sandals, slippers are not acceptable, but high heels is acceptable when you come to the golf club. Metal spikes are usually not allowed on the course.
– We’d like you to take off a cap and a raincoat at the restaurant.
– Hanging a towel from your body such as shoulder and neck isn’t acceptable.
On the Tee
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. You will see as your tee up, 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 as a guide – usually when the next group passes it is generally, OK to play away (If you’re a long hitter- better to hang on another minute or two).
The white stakes
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!. Like 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
The yellow stakes (can be yellow and black) indicate an area like an OB line, if your ball crosses 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) but 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.
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 in season is quick growing and has a thick root system.
It was popular in Japan to have two greens on every hole, particularly for courses built before the 90’s. The idea was to have a winter green of bent and a summer of korai. These days the same courses will plant both with bent and alternate them to allow for recovery and aeration treatment etc. A good tip is if you’re going by the course yardage markers – right side of the fairway markers will indicate the right green and the distance to its centre, and the left markers the left green centre.
The dreaded 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. Despite this, Japanese greens are some of the finest in the world and the dedicated green keepers are relentlessly checking during and after the rounds to make sure their greens are top notch.
Lunch After Nine?
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 practice 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 and we recommend some Soba or Udon!
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 – you cannot hold up the group behind!