A Golfer's Guide to Kansai
Whether going for a long weekend with friends or breaking up your Japan holiday into smaller pieces, a Kansai golf mini-trip can offer excitement, plenty of great golf, and certainly some wonderful cultural experiences. With so many courses and attractions in Kansai, it’s the perfect place for a golfing mini-trip.
Our trip started at Tokyo station, two eager golfers meandering through the crowds with our golf bags, with plenty of friendly nods from Japanese salarymen, most likely golfers themselves (Japan has the second biggest golfing population in the world with about 2 million golfers!). After purchasing our Shinkansen tickets and a ritual ekiben (station bento box), we were off on our bullet train to Japan’s second largest city: Osaka. After a smooth and fast 2.5-hour journey we arrived at Shin-Osaka station. You need to change here to the Tokaido-Sanyo line to get to Osaka city center; it’s about four minutes to Osaka station.
First impressions count, and Osaka doesn't disappoint! Everything is a bit louder and more vivid in Osaka, the feeling is more downtown and exciting, We made our way through the Umeda district next to Osaka station for just 5 minutes to the Intercontinental hotel Osaka (we went for a more western styled hotel as we would stay the following night at a Japanese ryokan).
Osaka has a manic and hypnotic pace to it, the Umeda district has a lot of shopping with all the big brands and usual shopping you would expect. There is also ample golf shops too. Actually, it’s worth mentioning that tourists can enjoy tax-free shopping while visiting and Japan has lots of really amazing makers here such as Honma, Mizuno, and of course the fabled Miura- also from the Kansai area (Hyogo), as well as all the top international brands. Just outside the station is Tsuruya Golf, which has testing and fitting room too.
Night time on a Friday was falling fast and it was time to head out and explore, Osaka is famous as a down-to-earth city, and there are a lot of quality Izakaya everywhere (a casual pub-style restaurant) where people go after work for a beer, and some favorites like Okonomiyaki (Fried noodles with batter and veg) yakitori (chicken on a stick) and other tapas-style food, all delicious and super-reasonably priced. Of course, if you like something a little more civilized there are some of the best sushi and Kaiseki restaurants in Japan, head a little north of Umeda area and you can find the Michelin 3-starred Koryu in the Kitashinchi area, where you can have an unbelievable meal for about $300 per person.
We opted for some Izakaya and sensibly made our way back to the hotel for a quick nightcap anticipating an early start for our first round of the trip.
One of the huge advantages of Kansai is the relative location of quality golf courses to the city centres. We rented a car at Osaka station from ‘Times rental car’ and in 40 minutes were at the course. In Japan, by train is also an option and from Osaka station to Takarazuka JR station takes just 20 minutes, and the course could do pick up from there and have you at the course in about 25 minutes.
As you drive towards the clubhouse it’s very clear that you will be in for a day that has an abundance of stunning views. As the smiling staff greets you and you wander through the front brown wooden sliding doors there is always a feeling of warmth. The parquetry floor and high ceilings is highlighted by the large wooden table sitting in the middle of the foyer. This table always showcases a huge vase of flowers, giving the entrance a fantastic splash of color.
The well-appointed changing room is flanked by a small pro shop that has all the necessary goods for those who would like to purchase something before their game. A quick walk down the stairs will have you at the buggy station with your clubs on the cart and your caddie waiting to take care of you. If time permits you are welcome to hit a few putts on the practice putting green or smooth a few balls in the `birdcage` driving range before you start.
Completed in 2001 by course designer Tomikatsu Kato and redesigned only recently by Norio Honma this highland course is a real gem. The Par 72 course plays just under 7,000 yards from the back tees but many tee boxes available for all levels of players.
The course I would describe as gently undulating and a really nice walk if riding in the buggy is not your thing. The Korai fairways provide the best surfaces in Japan and the rolling greens are both interesting and fast. One of the features of this course is that each hole is very separate from the others, rarely seeing another group of players except for those in front of you. There are no long forced carries off the tees and very few holes which play uphill which makes for a
very pleasant day. The course is a mix of stunning par 3 holes, mid length strategic par 4 holes and Par 5 holes that although long on the scorecard, are all a definite birdie chance after a good drive. Something to note is the very small Japanese Pine trees dotted around the property. They can be found beside some of the ponds on the course and a worth taking a couple of photos of.
The best view on the course and the most iconic hole is the 18th. On a clear day the Tudor both Mt. Mikura and Mt.Sugino can easily be seen from the 18th tee box and is an absolute must to have the caddie take a photo of you.
Oh, and there is something else that I must mention. As is the culture in Japan there will be about an hour break in between every 9 holes. Do yourself a favor and order the `Japanese Gozen’ off the menu. It’s a mixture of all the best Japanese dishes including sashimi, tempura and Japanese style beef. Either a glass of white wine or a large Asahi beer goes perfectly together with this delicious meal and will have you more than ready for the back 9.
After a round of golf in Japan, another custom is a must- the bath. All golf courses in Japan have a bath or onsen area, but we decided to do one better and stay in the nearby onsen town of Arima Onsen. From Takarazuka to Arima was just a 30-minute drive over some beautiful roads in the hills surrounding Kobe. We arrived in the late afternoon and were able to see from our hotel room the fading lights of Kobe, we wasted no time and headed to our hotel.
Mind and body really can unwind like nowhere other than an onsen. Well reputed for there medicinal and healing benefits, the waters in Arima onsen come in different varieties, both Silver/white (alkaline type) and Gold/brown (Acidic type) The Silver water type offers a smoother skin and pleasant odor and good for sensitive skin, while the Gold type offers are more deep tissue relaxation for muscles and even bone tension.
Most of the Ryokan or Inn style hotels come with dinner included, and a Kaiseki or set course meal is presented, our meal featured sashimi, sushi, small salad, Miso soup and rice and some ice cream with sweet bean for dessert. Do note that it is not good to hit the onsen after a lot of alcohol, as you could get too relaxed and fall asleep!
After a delicious breakfast (Japanese or western on offer) we hit the road for a short 30 minutes drive to our next course Rokko GC. Considered one of the best in the Kansai region, and for good reason. The Rokko course has been the venue for the Mitsubishi Galant tournament on Japan’s men’s professional tour and is the current course chosen for the Maruhan Cup. The Maruhan Cup is a seniors professional event which boasts a very international and star-studded field, twice being won by Thailand's star golf professional, Prayad Marksaeng.
The Tudor style 2 story design is really quite outstanding with the inside of the clubhouse just as stylishly designed as outside. Having recently gone through a refurbishment the inner workings of the clubhouse now showcase probably one of the best pro shops inside a clubhouse in Japan. A selection of bespoke items and branded goods are beautifully displayed and well worth spending some time looking around, we saw some very nice Scotty Cameron high-end models as well as all the latest clubs from foreign and domestic brands.
Once checked in and you have dropped off your bag in the locker room it's time to step out onto this championship course. A huge rolling putting green sits in front of the clubhouse with a 200-yard driving range just a short pitch away. The first thing you will notice is the expanse of the property as your eyes will be drawn to the 18th green. The 18th hole is described by Japan’s most famous golfer, Jumbo Ozaki, as the best finishing hole in Japan.
The course was designed in 1975 by Tomizawa Seizo and upgraded by the prolific Norio Honma. The first design element that you will notice is the round, sand faced bunkers.
Obviously influenced by Alistair Mckenzie's bunkers at Augusta National these expansive bright white hazards look just tremendous against the bright green fairways and greens. The fairways are once again a veritable carpet of Korai grass and the greens are quick and tricky.
The greens are designed in a way where pins can be tucked behind bunkers and swales where a short-sided shot is almost impossible to recover from. The course is heavily treed and very mature looking considering it's only just over 40 years old. It very much reminds me of many of the tree-lined US open courses like Medinah and Congressional.
The course is not overly hilly but has just the right amount of movement to give some slightly uneven lies and interesting looks. At just over 7,000 yards from the tips, it plays every yard of this as occasionally shorter clubs will need to be hit from the tee box to avoid the hazards. The Rokko course starts with a short meandering par 5 and a beautifully designed tricky par 4-second hole. The third is a short uphill Par 3 surrounded by the Augusta like bunkers and then reality sets in. The next 6 holes are a real test of long par 4 holes, a very long downhill par 5 and a par 3 that requires a water carry.
The back 9 is honestly quite difficult and long. The only respite is the short par 4, 12th and the par 3, 13th before taking on the long 600-yard par 5 14th. The finishing holes are a strong test especially the picturesque par 3 17th. A small well-protected green awaits a long iron or wood with a par or even a bogey a good score. The 18th is just a brutal hole but perfectly designed. At 435 yards this par 4 dogleg to the left has watered down the left in the landing area. The elevated tee allows you to see the pond yet the further you play to the right your second
shot becomes increasingly more difficult and long. Those who are brave and play closer to the water are left with a shorter shot but is still quite tricky as it’s also water carry onto the green. The green has 3 very distinct areas and looks like Mickey Mouse’s face which allows for a huge variety of pin positions. It’s just a great looking hole with the iconic clubhouse as its backdrop.
Rokko was a great way to finish our mini-trip, the scores were not too much to write home about but you must remember it has tested some of the best players in the world. The finishing stretch is tough but it's everything that a tournament course should and will provide.
After our round, we drove the car 30 minutes to Shin Kobe station and left at the Times car rental office just next to the station, which was more convenient than going back to Osaka. Taking the Shinkansen back to Tokyo we reflected on the last two days, getting out and playing golf is really a wonderful way to see Japan, you have some of the most pristine natural environments- with fantastic golf and not too far from the big cities, wonderful food (as always) and also you can meet some of the nicest people... we truly had a great time and immediately started to plan our next mini golf adventure.