"The combination of amazing courses with unrivaled post-game Japanese cultural options makes Mie a world-class golfing destination."
Over the last few years, I've been lucky enough to travel a few times to the stunning prefecture of Mie, in the Kansai region of Japan. Each trip, I have been seriously impressed by the courses, the natural beauty of the landscape, the unique food, and the rich cultural heritage. I have never been in winter, however, and with the new-year holidays came an opportunity to travel there for a seven-day adventure.
The following is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what's on offer. Having experienced all four seasons there now I can safely say that it's one of the best places to visit in Japan all year round. The combination of amazing courses with unrivaled after-golf and Japanese cultural options truly does make Mie a world-class golfing destination.
Getting to Mie
Mie is a coastal prefecture located in the center of Japan, just below the ancient cultural capital of Kyoto. Though more than a third of Mie is comprised of mountainous national parkland, it's readily accessible by plane, train, car and boat.
The quickest way to get to Mie from Tokyo is a one-hour flight from Haneda Airport to Centrair Airport in the suburbs of Nagoya, just on the opposite side of the Ise Bay from Mie. From there, it's recommended to rent a car at the airport and drive around the bay to the northern part of Mie - which is what I did.
Centrair Airport is well laid out with the car rental shops right underneath the arrivals hall. I went with Toyota Rental Car as their English website was easy to use. A good tip is to get an ETC credit card with your car. This will enable you to pass through the toll gates on the motorway without having to stop and pay with cash; it's simply added to your bill when you bring back the car. Another benefit of using Toyota Rental Car is that you can drop the car off at any Toyota rental car shop. After my Mie escapade, I drove along the coast and up through Wakayama prefecture for a few days before heading to Osaka. There, I dropped the car off at the station and took a bullet train back to Tokyo. (You've got to love the transport system in Japan!)
Mie Country Club and Gozaisho Ropeway
I decided to make Yokkaichi City my base of operations for the trip as the lively port city boasts several fantastic courses within a short drive, alongside many reasonable hotel options and lots of things to see and do.
On my first day, I was supposed to play at Mie Country Club but due to an overnight dusting of snow, the course was closed for the day. But, I still drove up to check out the course and clubhouse, and it looked fantastic. I've included some pictures kindly provided by the club below to give you an idea of what it's like. The course features some cool holes and even a shrine to the golfing gods. I definitely need to pay my respects there next time!
Although I was disappointed not to play the course, I was delighted to pay a visit to the nearby Gozaisho Ropeway instead, just five minutes' drive up the road. The oldest ropeway in Japan, Gozaisho was established in 1958, with the ingenious lift system coming all the way over from Switzerland. At 1,200 meters above sea level, it was a thrilling place to visit while the mountain was covered in snow. If you do go between January and March they open up a ski slope at the summit and you can also go snowshoeing and winter hiking. The visitor center there is a great place to tuck into a warming bowl of curry udon and admire the jaw-dropping views of Yokkaichi and Ise Bay below.
Nabana no Sato
Not too far from Yokkaichi City is the famous Nabana no Sato, a massive flower park which is spectacularly lit up at night. Whether you're on a romantic stroll with your better half, a magical nighttime exploration with the kids, or if you are just craving some quality content for your Instagram, this is a sight you don't want to miss!
It has acres of beautiful trees (particularly scenic in the fall), a fantastic outdoor onsen (hot spring), flower gardens, rose gardens and even beer gardens! The Disney-esque buildings house restaurants, souvenir shops, and plenty of snacks and drink stalls. The projection mapping at the main amphitheater is definitely a highlight, as are the tunnels of flowers and fairy lights. At night the multiple large ponds come to life with impressive light shows, too.
Like all theme parks in Japan, Nabana no Sato is really well organized with plenty of parking, but you might want to take a bus or taxi so you can enjoy a hot wine or two while admiring the lights.
Ryosen Golf Club
It was a crisp, cloudless day when I had the privilege to play what is regarded as one of the more high-end courses in Mie: Ryosen Golf Club. From the moment you pull up to the elegant clubhouse, you cannot be anything but impressed by the style and class that this club exudes.
Inside, a plush and timeless interior with well-appointed dressing rooms and a members' lounge gives way to a large restaurant with expansive bay windows overlooking the finishing holes. This is a members' course, but visitors are permitted to play, with all groups accompanied by a caddy.
The course is a gem - every single hole is visually stunning. It's seemingly straightforward off the tee - lulling you into a false sense of security - but what becomes apparent very quickly is that this course possesses some of the most strategically placed bunkers I have ever played. And despite finding the sand on almost every hole, I was drawn in by the sheer beauty of the landscape, the dramatic snow-capped Fujiwaradake mountain in the background in perfect contrast to the winter-blue sky.
There are some amazing water features, the 7th boasting twin waterfalls behind the green, while the spellbinding 9th hole shares three different lakes to offer a twist on a fantastic risk-and-reward par 5, a perfect finishing hole.
As in most golf courses in Japan, a customary lunch is standard and the signature menu has been created by the famous Hotel Okura, boasting both Japanese and western fare.
The in-course, in my opinion, is the more difficult 9, as the course offers more variation with doglegs, longer par 4's and (on the day I played) some blustery exposed holes, particularly the par 3s. However, the closing three holes provide a little better scoring opportunities and the final hole which shares a lake with the 9th on the left is another great finishing hole, with the clubhouse above the green beckoning you home nicely.
Suzuka Country Club
A little further south is Suzuka Country Club, a 54-hole course offering something for everyone. I really liked this club as it felt like it was a down-to-earth course.
My very first impression was that Suzuka Country Club has a very active membership. I loved seeing the monthly medal tournament standings having pride of place on the wall, the members' white hats on labeled hooks and the various cups and memorabilia that adorned the cabinets.
I played the front 9 on the "Nishi" course which has some wonderful views of the mountain foliage; its seasonal reds, greens and browns. This course has some very interesting holes, with two or three having elevated table-top greens, like castles surrounded by moats of sand. I found myself in on one at the foot of the green on the par 4, 5th hole, and I'll admit it took me two shots to figure out how to traverse the three meters onto the green. My playing partner advised, "Play this course long - it's much easier," and he was right. That tip took out most of the danger and meant scoring became possible.
It is also possible to play through here, but lunch is also recommended as the food is so good! I couldn't resist some Tan-tan-men noodles which had me raring to go for the back 9. For the back 9, on my request, we switched courses to the "Higashi" course, as I had never played Korai greens before. Korai is the native grass used on 99% of all fairways in Japan. It turns yellow in winter and is really hardy stuff. I had my apprehensions at first as the greens seemed super fast but the more I played them, the more I enjoyed them. I also really liked the layout of this course; wider fairways, slight doglegs, and large receptive greens (no castles in sight!). I never got to play the Nishi course but it's nice to be able to have something to come back for.
Unmissable travel spots in Mie: Ise-Shima National Park
You shouldn't leave Mie prefecture without spending some time exploring the famous Ise-Shima National Park.
Here Japan's holiest shrine - the Ise Jingu - offers visitors a spiritual reset after busy days of sightseeing. The Ise Jingu is better described as a city of shrines (a city the same size as Paris, in fact), home to 125 wooden buildings that have been hidden among towering cedar and pine trees since the third century. Exploring the inner and outer shrine areas is very peaceful, and you can wander around at your own pace taking in the serene atmosphere.
The main shrine, the Kotaijingu, is the house of Amaterasu-Omikami, the sun goddess and deified mother of Japan's emperors. The building is said to contain a sacred bronze mirror that hasn't been seen by humans for more than 1000 years - and has been the main attraction for pilgrims from across the country for almost as long. In Japan, it's believed that you must visit the Ise Jingu at least once in your lifetime, so you should grab the chance while you're in the area!
In front of the Ise Jingu is a lively street called "Okage-yokocho," made up of buildings that replicate the historic teahouses and inns that would have welcomed pilgrims in the Edo period (1603 to 1868). You can walk along the short street, dipping into the quaint souvenir shops and sampling the local specialities like akafuku mochi, pounded rice that's moulded into a ball and topped with sweet red bean paste. The locals are exceptionally friendly, their generosity coming from a long history of welcoming weary walkers at their door.
About 10 kilometers away along the coast is another recommended sightseeing spot called Meoto-Iwa or "Wedded Rocks." These are two giant rocks set offshore, one representing the husband and the other the wife, that are linked by a thick shimenawa (sacred Shinto rope). The scene attracts selfie-stick-holding couples with the promise of a happy marriage if they pray at the adjacent shrine. Between May and July, the Meoto-Iwa provides an especially hallowed photo opportunity when the sun rises exactly midway between the two rocks against a brilliant purple sky.
You'll find it easy to explore the area with a car, though there are dedicated shuttle buses that ferry tourists to and from the major sites. Whatever transport you choose, exploring Ise-Shima is an ideal way to round off an amazing golfing and cultural experience in Japan.
Kintetsu Kashikojima Country Club
Home of the Mizuno Ladies Open for ten years, this course ticks all the boxes. Carefully laid out over gentle terrain that hugs Ago Bay, each hole feels unique with meticulously maintained fairways and bunkers and the strategic plantings of native trees revealing glimpses of the bay here and there. Despite its tournament pedigree, the course feels scoreable particularly from the regular tees, but the greens are the fastest I have played in Mie and demand your full attention.
The tablet mounted in the cart not only gives you yardage but also allows you to play a virtual match against one of the pros who played in the 2010 Mizuno, so you can see how your game racks up against Michelle Wie or local favorite Momoko Ueda.
In terms of the quality of the layout, the cost performance, food, and hospitality, this is by far one of my favorite courses and I can't recommend it enough.
I should mention the Miyako Resort Shima Bayside Terrace. Just two minutes away, this hotel offers an amazing base for your Ise-Shima adventures. The rooms are large and comfortable in a western-style and mostly overlook Ago Bay. The location is tranquil with unspoiled nature all around - relaxing on the balcony enjoying the beautiful sunrise and sunset was unforgettable. The staff are wonderful and very attentive and the dinner options 5-star — the on-site Japanese and French restaurants will not disappoint.
Ago Bay Cultural Experience
Run by the local tourism authority, the Ago Bay cultural experience is a fantastic way to spend a few hours when not on the links. Starting at the hotel jetty, you are picked up by an English-speaking tour guide and the tour begins with a boat ride across the bay to visit a pearl farmer. The Ise-Shima area is renowned for pioneering the cultivation of pearls, so there is no better place to try your hand at harvesting a pearl from the beautiful turquoise waters and learn about this fascinating industry. Inside the workshop, you can make some jewelry with the pearl you just harvested.
After the visit to the pearl farmer, it's onto dry land and a very interesting experience of making Japanese Zori sandals. I have to say this was a one-of-a-kind experience and to my surprise was very enjoyable. Meeting a local artisan in her home and making reed sandals as they have been made for hundreds of years is amazing, and the finished sandals make a fantastic souvenir. But it's the interaction with the local people that is the best part - listening to them chat about their life and the stories about the area was heartwarming.
After returning to the hotel, the concierge recommended a visit to the nearby Yokoyama Observatory and visitor center where the views of the bay from the mountain top at sunset will take your breath away.
The magic of Mie
There are just so many wonderful courses and things to do in Mie that even if you stayed here for a full year you still wouldn't scratch the surface of this amazing destination. But if you don't have a year to travel, I would recommend at least one week to be able to truly immerse yourself.
You can check all of the Mie Golf Courses here. If you would like some more sample itineraries and help organizing your Mie golf trip then check out Mie Golf Tourism Organization, they will be happy to help.