I'm not much of a golfer. But as a native of Scotland, I consider myself something of a golfing purist. Golf should be played as it was always meant to be played, i.e. man or woman + links + the elements. All the various accoutrements that attend the modern game, I can take or leave. And most of them I'd prefer to leave.
In comparison to the game of golf I know, and that I grew up playing, golf in Japan is a whole crazy world.
Today is a Japanese national holiday (Labor Day, so we don't work) and I've just come back from a game of golf near Nagoya with my son. It's only the second course I've ever played over here in Japan, and the first time I've been the one paying. So I wanted to share some of the experience. I'll start by saying we had a great time -- we had plenty of father-and-son bonding, some late November sunshine, and a bit of light exercise.
But, from the golf purist's perspective -- it was crazier than crazy golf.
The craziness starts from the booking process. Unlike in Scotland where you can usually just turn up at the course and expect to start more or less when you like, you have to book weeks in advance to play golf in Japan. I started trying to book our game today more than 2 weeks ago. The only time -- and I mean the only time available today -- was starting at 7:07 in the morning! Given that it was a 45-minute drive to the course, that meant we had to get up at 5:30 today just to get there on time. And we almost didn't. I've got two missed calls on my phone from the golf course this morning, at 6:44 and 6:45, no doubt asking us where we were because our playing companions were ready and raring to go.
Did I mention playing partners? In Scotland, only the very most expensive and exclusive courses ask two-balls to join together to make four-balls. In Japan, that's par for the course. So, we arrived this morning at the golf course (you drive up to the front of the clubhouse, they unload your bags and take them off somewhere, and then you park your car before making your way via the locker room to the hallowed turf) to find our two friendly playing companions, A-san and I-san, waiting for us.
Before we could say hajimemashite, our golf cart drew up, with our golf bags already tied on to it by some of the many, many staff. My bag had a label on it saying "Richard Brash" and my son's label said "Kaz Brash." Given that we have identically sized golf bags and clubs, how on earth did they know whose was whose? A-san and I-san jumped into the cart leaving space in the back for Kaz, and the "driving seat" for me. When I expressed some concern about driving the cart for the first time on a new course, they looked at me as though I had just arrived from outer space: didn't you know that the cart drives itself??
Yes, you heard me: the cart drives itself. The whole experience felt like a ride in Disneyland. The only other course I've played on in Japan, it was compulsory caddies rather than compulsory carts. I have to say, I didn't much care for the caddies. They're very directive. They tell you what club to play, and where to aim it. And they don't trust your judgment. Whenever I wanted to play a traditional British links bump-and-run with a 7-iron or equivalent, they would suck their teeth and pull out the pitching wedge.
But the carts don't take "no" for an answer either. So, off went our automatic cart, through a tunnel, over a little waterfall, and round the pond. Honestly, I wouldn't have been surprised if Snow White and the Seven Dwarves had suddenly appeared. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised about the cart either. On the other course (the one with the caddies) there were outdoor escalators to take you up to the elevated tees. And airport-style conveyor belts you could stand on to take you on to the next hole if you had to walk more than about 50 yards.
Every time the automatic cart stops, it speaks. Usually, it tells you the distance to the hole. A screen displays strategy points. Sometimes, it asks you to input your score on a touch screen. Then once you've inputted your score, it asks you if you are ready to "send" your score to be "registered." I'm afraid I found this all rather sinister. I didn't mind sending my 3s and 4s to Big Brother (there weren't many of them, sadly) but I felt rather silly registering a "10" on one hole. Who was checking this information, anyway, and why did they need it?
The other thing you have to know about Japanese golf is that you're normally expected to stop for lunch. At the other course I played at, everyone orders lunch before starting. Then when you finish the 9th, you're whisked into the dining room for a 40 minute lunch, and then whisked back out again to start the inward nine. Today, having started at 7:07, there was no lunch (at least, not until we finished -- we got into the restaurant at 12:40, which gives you an idea of how long the whole thing takes). Not only is there lunch, but there are two 'rest-houses' along the way. These aren't just toilets; there are of course also the ubiquitous vending-machines. At the other course I've played at, there's even an obā-chan running a little kiosk in the rest-house selling drinks and snacks. Of course, you have to buy one for your caddy too... in case she gives you the wrong club on the next hole by "accident." (Almost all the caddies I saw were women.)
Because we were on the "through-play" plan (no lunch) I figured we'd go straight from the 9th to the 10th. Sounds logical, right? That's what "through-play" means, huh? No. The automatic cart isn't that clever (or is it too clever by half?) Instead of taking us the short distance to the next hole, it took us on a total merry-go-round detour back up, round the pond, over the little waterfall, and through the tunnel to the clubhouse -- just as if we were lunchers -- and then, after a couple of beeps, it took us right back where we'd just come from, through the tunnel, over the little waterfall, and round the pond, to the 10th tee. Crazy.
But hey, we had lots of fun. The course was in great condition. The staff were all very friendly (even if there were far too many of them to meet either my needs or my desires). We got to meet some nice people who played with us. And we really enjoyed the public bath when we got back to the clubhouse after the round. Lunch was good, too. Mmmm... Japanese curry. Not so crazy after all.
Until, that is, it came to paying the bill, when craziness returned with a vengeance. I'd chosen this particular course because it was a "public" course. In Edinburgh (Scotland) a "public" course, usually means basic facilities, run by the local council, and you can play a round for about £15 ($20). Not in Japan. Okay, they let us play, despite not knowing us (although their Big Data collectors did seem to have a spookily accurate dossier on what clubs we own, and now that they know all our "registered" scores they at least know that we are not very good at golf). You can't just walk on to a "private" course around here without an introduction etc, even if you're willing to pay top dollar/yen. But "public" in Japan doesn't mean "cheap." Let's just say that this kind of father-and-son day out will have to be timed for next Labor Day, and I'll need to do a good bit more "labor" first...