Golf is a big deal in Japan, with over 2,000 courses across the country, ranging from top championship courses, to riverside pitch and putt spots. Although famous clubs near major cities like Tokyo tend to steal the spotlight, traveling just a little further away gives you access to some real gems.
Playing golf in any country is certainly a cultural experience, and Japan is no exception. The metal cups that catch your putt on the green are purposely made to give players that oh-so-satisfying “kerplunk” sound. The first nine is usually followed by a delicious lunch and cold Japanese beer or local sake. The staff at the club is always super helpful and utterly professional. For years, golf was used to strengthen business relations in Japan so every club tries very hard to be the place you would want to take a valued business partner. Since many of the players will be with important guests, rules are pretty strictly enforced and slow play is a huge faux pas. Basically, someone playing too slow is holding up another player and his important business contact. No one wants to do that to each other so I notice that “slow play” (about 20 minutes per hole) is something Japanese players value and adhere to.
So, a day of golf in Japan, the pace, the food, the service, will give you an interesting peek into both business and personal aspects of life in Japan. Careful observation of how people conduct themselves will have you nodding your head at how different things can be, country by country. Despite these differences, though, you are sure to have a full day of fun and don’t forget the uniquely Japanese post play hot bath available at most clubs!
Shikoku Island’s Kochi Prefecture is not (yet) internationally known as a golfing destination, which is unfortunate as the year-round temperate climate, nutrient-rich soil, Pacific Ocean views, and lush valleys make it an ideal golfing destination any time of the year. More than 80 percent of Kochi is covered in forest, it boasts Japan’s last untouched and pure river, Shimanto River, and is famous for the kind local residents. Kochi can be reached by plane from Haneda Airport, train via Okayama station or by car. Because of the Setouchi Inland Sea, etc., along the way, the vistas would make a one-week road trip totally worth your while.
For golf enthusiasts, in particular, the fact that Kochi is still a hidden gem means courses aren’t overrun with day-hackers from the big cities. Kochi City itself offers all the fun you may need (Kochi Castle, Karaoke, restaurants, etc) so before your golf day, a day in the city visiting the castle, going to the Hirome Market dining emporium, riding the tram down main street or heading to Chikurinji Temple is highly recommended. A few miles out of the city and Kochi is a peaceful green and blue oasis that moves to the beat of a slower drum, like a Fred Couples wedge shot.
Kochi is known for readily welcoming visitors into their family or “Kochi Ke” and you can enjoy this same hospitality across the prefecture. Despite Kochi being one of Japan’s least densely populated prefectures, it offers several golf courses to choose from. Courses are visitor friendly, and you won’t find any of the elitist snobbery displayed by some of their Tokyo or Osaka counterparts.
The local golfers here are mellow and good-natured, happy to share their favorite courses with visitors. At the first course I played in Kochi, I emerged from the locker room and was trying to get my bearings when an elderly member strolled over and asked: “Have you had any yuzu juice today?” When I said I hadn't, he smiled and told me to go to the restaurant and ask for a glass. “It will give you an extra 20 yards off the tee,” he noted with a grin as he strolled off.
Besides the potentially yard-giving (and definitely refreshing) yuzu citrus fruit, Kochi is also known for katsuo (bonito), which often appears on the menu at clubhouses around the prefecture. Our lunch featuring seared Bonito slices and cold Japanese beer made our final nine holes all the more fun and energetic. Many clubs also offer Japanese sake to compliment the local dishes.
Before You Go
Getting to Kochi by air is easy. Just over an hour flight from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, Kochi Ryoma Airport is conveniently located just outside Kochi City. Both major domestic airlines and LCCs fly here, and golf clubs may be taken onboard for free depending on your membership status and the weight of your clubs. Alternatively, you can use the wonderful service offered by delivery services like Sagawa or Kuroneko Yamato, etc. These services will get your clubs door to door to any golf course in Japan within two days and for around 5,800 yen (approx. 55 USD). The fee covers round trip delivery for your clubs and they can be sent from your hotel concierge as well. To access downtown Kochi, you can ride the bus that leaves regularly from the airport, hail one of the many taxis waiting outside the airport exit, or rent a car from one of the providers right across the street. The information desk outside baggage claim offers multilingual information support about all the wonder of Kochi, in addition to the prefecture’s amazing golf.
When playing golf in Kochi, I always rent a car. It is by far the easiest way to get around, and it’s cheap: about 7,000 yen (approx. 68 USD) a day for a midsize car. Rental agencies are right at the airport, and cars can easily be reserved in advance, using the companies’ English-friendly websites. Watch out though, driving may take longer than expected since you will feel like stopping every 20 minutes or so to take in the lovely mountain, river and ocean views along the way.
Like anywhere in Japan, basic etiquette must be respected. On-course rules are similar to those in North America and Europe. Dress code-wise, it is always a good idea to wear a light sports coat when entering and leaving the clubhouse (in the summer this can be draped over your arm, as long as you are wearing a collared shirt). Ladies should bring a cardigan to cover their shoulders.
Standard golf clothing, including appropriate shorts in summer, is always ok. Wearing beach sandals or sneakers is a major faux pas, and always wear a collared shirt both on and off the course.
Tattoos are still frowned upon in Japan. While regulations about tattoos are changing, it is best to err on the side of caution and a certain amount of modesty. Please check the etiquette rules of the course you choose to visit since some have more stringent manner guidelines than others.
Get To Know the Kochi Courses
The Tosa Country Club boasts 36 holes, some of which stretch along the scenic coastline, offering picture-perfect palm tree-lined fairways against the backdrop of a beautiful turquoise ocean. Imagine yourself on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, deep green grass along the path, your bag secured to the back of your golf cart and bright sunshine drenching you in warmth. This is what awaits you at Tosa Country Club. Golfing here you actually might forget your turn, as the urge to take photos is so strong!
Just 10 minutes away by car is the world-class Kochi Kuroshio Country Club, which has two 18-hole championship courses. Famous for hosting the Casio World Open, one of the biggest events on the Japanese tour, since 2005. The course is long and challenging (especially around November when it is “championship ready”) and always immaculately maintained. Like its neighbor, the views here are tropical and may make you think of Hawaii. English-speaking staff is on hand to help with booking, making Kuroshio a must-play course.
Heading further east, we come to Green Feel Golf Club, designed by Japanese TV pundit Sho Tobari, who created a unique and entertaining course. The front 9 offers less length but has tapered landing areas on the fairway and undulating greens which call for control and concentration. The back 9 is a lot of fun, featuring doglegs, high tee boxes, ravine-carries, river-carries, amazing mountain views, heavy rough in places, and everything else you need for a real golfing adventure.
Close to Susaki City, Sky Bay Golf Club has a stunning geographical setting. Located on a jutting headland, the course is raised and slopes toward the bay, offering sea views in an unspoiled landscape. It's seriously serene, ideal for some “Zen golf.”
About an hour and a half drive from Kochi Ryoma Airport is the sister club of Sky Bay. Sky Hill Golf Club is a fun, short course that doesn’t take itself too seriously, with tons of up and down and quirky holes and design (but with serious views of the surrounding mountains). A must-try is the glamping (glamorous camping) accommodation run by the course. You can enjoy an evening BBQ and stay in a large tent fitted out with full-size beds and air conditioning. This is a great spot for stargazing.
A Final Thought…
The thing I love about golfing in Kochi is the accessibility. You can visit for a day or two and really feel like you “got away”... although one could easily spend weeks here enjoying the Shikoku slow-life too. With delicious food, friendly people and great golf, Kochi is sure to become an even more popular golf destination soon. Come check it out yourself...and don’t forget to have a glass of yuzu juice and see if you get those extra 20 yards!