Despite my 16 years in Japan, I have never been to Kochi Prefecture or in the Shikoku region for that matter. As such, I knew nothing about the area including its golf offerings. So I was delighted to be invited by the Jarman International team to travel to Kochi and experience some of the courses there in an effort to promote the local area including the golf courses.
Kochi (or Kōchi ) is the biggest of the 4 prefectures on the island of Shikoku in the southwest of Japan but has a relatively small population of 690,668. The area is famous for citrus fruits, most namely the Yuzu lemon. It is also known for its high-quality and delectable Katsuo (Bonito fish).
On the day of departure, we made our way to Kochi from Tokyo via Haneda Airport on a typically hot August morning. The flight was only a short 1-hour 20 minute journey but being my first COVID-19 pandemic flight I was somewhat worried about getting on the plane. The airport had about 1/5th of the normal travelers it would have had if there were no crisis. The plane was not much fuller with only about 1/3rd of the seats taken. Basically, everyone had three seats to themselves. The new safety videos reassured us that all the air in the plane is completely replaced every 3 minutes. I felt pretty safe seeing that everyone was wearing a face mask.
My first stop, Skyhill Golf Club is located inland toward the mountainous part of Kochi. I arrived in the morning and mist blanketed the mountain tops making for some breathtaking views. My first surprise of the day at Skyhill was that you pay in advance, which is unusual for Japan. My second shock was it was very reasonable--just 6,000 yen for 18 holes on a weekday!
After dropping my gear off at the locker it wasn't long before the blue skies and sun came out and my group and I made our way to the first tee. This course had plenty of hills which meant for a lot of ups and downs! But despite this, it was not overly difficult, mostly because there were not many long holes. With drivable carts, we flew around the course in no time. On many holes, it was very interesting to play uphill to the green. The steep inclines made gauging distances quite challenging. One of my playing partners, Rob(of Brits On Bikes fame), did decipher the course quite well and actually shot a personal best. The course had a few quirky holes. The number 3 on the front nine, was a par 3 with a tree right in the middle of the shot! The front in general had some nice short par 4s too making a very good score possible.
Lunch featured hearty staples like Karage (fried chicken) and curry rice. The complimentary soft drinks bar is a great feature.
The back 9 was quite unusual with three par 5s, three par 4s, and three par 3s. Naturally being in the mountain, the up-down theme of the course continued. Kochi's mountains are full of natural flora and fauna. In between holes we saw badgers, countless eagles, and wonderful views of forested hilltops on every hole. The finishing hole was a par 5 with a slight dogleg left and then a downhill drop of about 250 yards for the second to the green. It was a great hole and although it was long with a steep incline it was very getable. We did have to watch out for a few of the pot bunkers that guard the green, however! We were very happy with a pair of pars and exchanged the now customary elbow high-five. We headed to the ofuro which is part of the onsite glamping location where we spent the night!
Skyhill Glamping is literally about 50 yards down the road from the main entrance and backs onto the course, there are 4 glamping tents and two caravans, plenty of space to park your car, and an outside seating area with a sink, BBQ grill, and dining area. It is a perfect spot to enjoy a BBQ under the stars and reminisce over the round with a beer and some wonderfully prepared meats and vegetables on the BBQ. The tents are large and airy and the beds are like ones in a fine hotel room. It is suitable for kids too, so a traveling family would have a great time here. The glamping costs about ¥20,000. You can bring your own food and drinks or for an additional charge they can prepare a BBQ meal for you.
After a tasty breakfast at Skyhill (which had Japanese and western options), we hit the road and about 40 minutes away arrived at Green Feel Golf Club. Pulling up the course you could tell this course was going to be something special, laid out meticulously side by side each of the holes were separated by height changes and in some places water features but the course was generally flat except for a few elevated tees.
I have to say I really liked this course, but it wasn't easy! the course had plenty of length to it at just over 7,000 yards and with a rating of 73.2. Course management is definitely called for. Keeping the ball on the fairway is key. Laying up will really see you save some shots as lush rough is seen everywhere around the greens and can easily claim a ball. Our group lost a few balls that were presumably in the open.
But playing on a course this beautiful you have to just forget about the scores and admire the imaginative design that designer Tobari San came up with. It really has some magical holes. The 2nd hole (pictured above) demands a good tee shot to clear a ravine and a long 2nd uphill shop to a steep two-tiered green is a real test, and a real joy to play.
After 9 holes a traditional lunch-break awaited. The food was excellent with plenty of options including some Chinese and Japanese set lunches. After lunch, I dropped by the pro shop in the lobby, which was well-stocked and quite reasonable. I picked up a fresh hat before heading off to play the back 9.
The back-9 was gorgeous. Every hole from tee to green was in great condition. Many of the holes were laid out in dog-legged valleys or hugging densely wooded areas adding to their splendor and difficulty. I really liked the par-three 12th pictured above. It is well-guarded and plays quite long even from the regular tees. The 18th was a lovely finishing hole, which provided some drama to our 'loser buys a drink' bet. The approach over water to an elevated green was quite a challenge. After some clutch up-and-downs, we finished off another great round with the satisfying feeling that only comes when playing a great course with some good companions.
After a 30 minute drive back down the coast passed Kochi City, we arrived at our lodgings for the evening: The Daiwa Royal Tosa Hotel. Daiwa had a traditional inn feel to it but in a multi-story hotel setting. It is a cheap and cheerful hotel with a spectacular view from the balcony to the turquoise Pacific ocean coastline. The sunset is something to see, just pure magic. The beach is within walking distance from the hotel and just down the road is a restaurant called SeaHouse which has all sorts of local seafood but also original pasta dishes and Izakaya style offerings overlooking the pristine beach and ocean and is well worth a visit.
After a good sleep, we had only to drive around the corner to the last course on our Kochi mini trip: Tosa Country Club. I arrived early and had a delicious breakfast in the wonderful clubhouse restaurant which has a panoramic view of the ocean. Tosa Country Club has 2 courses, the Ashizuri course which heads out to the mountainside, and the Muroto and Katsurahama courses making up the other 18. We started on the Muroto course and from the first hole, we could tell this course is absolutely mint. The fairways were so pristine and inviting. One of the details I loved is how the lines cut by the mowers followed the contours of the edges. Those little details like that help guide your eye and set up better shots.
Hole numbers 3 and 4 really stand out. They are elevated overlooking the ocean, with palm trees and large white sandy bunkers set against the magnificent turquoise Pacific. It makes you think you are in Mauii, not an hour from Tokyo! The fresh salty breeze is a welcome reprieve from the summer sun given the course a links-like feel to these holes.
In Kochi, people play at a good pace and we were back to the clubhouse before long. It took just 2 hours for 9 holes. The staff were awesome and allowed us to play through, but we needed to switch to the Ashizuri course front 9, which was fine with us as a typhoon was scheduled to come in and we could see some darker clouds looming on the horizon. The Ashizuri course is another gem, the fairways are wider here and wind less prevalent, the holes are not that long but if you lacked a bit of accuracy, the fairway long rough had you chipping out to get back into position. The bunkering on this course is also strategic, the very fine white sand is PGA championship level and immaculately kept. The closing stretch of 7th, 8th, and 9th are beautiful, the 8th; a par 5, is a particular stand out with a large lake in front of the green making a two on a daunting challenge (and truth be told a 3-on too!) As we cleaned up with some bogeys on our last hole of the day the heavens opened up as we stepped back into the clubhouse. I cannot recommend the Katsuo (Bonito) set lunch enough which of course must be enjoyed with a cold beer.... ah bliss!
Like all mini trips, this was action-packed but only a short taster of this amazing prefecture, its golf courses and its people, and their rich culture. I am already making arrangements to head down this fall for another trip and to play some of the other 8 courses the prefecture has to offer, and I honestly can't wait.
Courses played and green fees (As of Sep 2020)
Skyhill Golf Club
Midweek ¥6,000 yen self-play
Green Feel Golf Club
Midweek ¥8,000 yen self play
Tosa Country Club
Midweek ¥8,000 yen self-play
¥20,000 pp a night
Daiwa Royal Tosa
¥10,000 a night includes breakfast
ANA flies daily from Narita airport from ¥40,000- ¥50,000 return