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Kicking around in Kansai – Japan

Kansai Region – Mie, Hyogo and Shiga

Despite the cool autumnal feel about December, the warm welcome is ever present from the people of Japan as I landed into Kansai Osaka airport.

The quick and ever efficient train journey with my final destination being Shiga Prefecture.

This is my third time to Japan, and I’m delighted to be seeing more on offer from this beautiful unassuming country located in the Pacific Ocean to the East of South Korea sitting just 587 miles away.   Landing in the morning gives me time to play 9 holes, and that exactly what I did at Ryuo (pronounced R-euro).  Playing with the humble card marker of the club, now I say card marker, but I get the impression he’s a bit more than that and pretty much helps the club tick along with ease and is certainly part of the furniture.  He was a delight as we played the front nine of this 6600 yard (5076 off the front tees) parkland course.

Ryuo golf course is part of the Prince Chain of hotels and golf courses, and is the sister to the better known Seta Golf Club.  With easy access to the main highway it is a great stop off point or to be incorporated as part of trip around Japan.  Beguiling its relative early establishment of 1982, the course has water and trees aplenty, the condition of the course was brilliant, especially as the season was late Autumn/early winter and the fact that the course had been played all summer long.  I particularly liked the two greens.  It makes sense when weather is a contributing factor as it is with most golf courses to have two greens, one in play and one ‘resting’  As a visitor it isn’t always obvious which one to play especially when the yardage is needed, so a simply yet effective solution at Ryuo golf course is to have two sets of yardage markers on the course too, one on the left for the left green and one on the right for the right green.   Japan never ceases to amaze me with its simple ideas that just make ones life better, whether on the golf course or off.  Greens weren’t as pitted as I expected and have experienced previously, in fact they were pretty good, and rolled well too.  Being part of the Prince group, it is also easy to get on here to play. 

A 40 minute transfer takes me to the hotel for a few days, the Biwako Otsu Prince Hotel.

Situated on the Biwa Lake, the largest fresh water lake in Japan, and the view from this imposing tower was extraordinary across the water to mountains as you scan the landscape laid out in front of you.

Thinking an early night was in order I was easily talked out of that silly idea and tantalised out for the night to the Matsukiya Omi beef restaurant.  Now we’ve all heard about the beef from japan, the lavish attention adorned on the precious commodity in the form of a cow.  The piece of beef on offer on tonights menu was valued at $2,000, so savour it I did.

Using this number one Wagu beef, the matsukiya style of dining is similar to that of a fondue, the beef is finely sliced and added to vegetables to be cooked as you like in a wide pot over an open flame, adding soy sauce, sugar beet and water as needed to savour, (not flavour !) this delicious meat.

After a day of meetings and discussions, the following day I was back on the golf course.  This time playing the better known course of the area and also a Prince Resort, Seta.  A 36 hole complex I had the opportunity to play the West course.  Despite its better known cousins the West course still offered a good test for the golfer.  A relatively flat field the 12 lakes came into play at every opportunity with 9 and 18 both having a lake in the way of the shot to the green.  Playing late autumn is a nice time the day, in fact the weather was cold but perfect playing conditions especially with the mirror blue ponds perfectly reflecting the changing colour trees.  Weirdly the fairways are green surrounded by yellow rough.  Due to the grass used in the rough it goes dormant during the winter months but remains in play and also remains thick and challenging too!  Couple these contrasting colours with the blue sky and the mountainous backdrop, and you’ve got a picture postcard to bash a little white ball around.  I hope to return one day and play the North and East courses for a true comparison.

Before leaving Shiga prefecture, another first for me in Japan was just around the corner in the shape of a tram, not just any tram but the longest cable railway in the country called the Sakamoto cable railway which first opened in 1927.  Taking 11 mins to complete this wonder journey through the hillside under the hillside, surrounded by tall imposing trees to the top where Mount Hiei awaits to show the vista views and offer the UNESCO Enryakuji Temple, a ‘training ‘ temple for other Buddhists and the place of many influential visitors enjoying the elevated views overlooking beautiful Lake Biwa.

Moving away from Shiga and into Hyogo (he-yo-go) prefecture via the incredibly interesting Takenaka tool museum and home to some of the worlds best and most intricate wood screens I have ever seen.  The museum takes you through the historical tasks the carpenters performed in an attempt to preserve the history of this unique wooden metropolis in Japan.

Basing ourselves at the ANA Park Hotel for a few nights meant we were within easy reach of Kobe, a dinner cruise on the Lake on board Concerto, a large commercial boat cruising the lake offering a luxury experience with live music and great food and with the sake flowing, it was a great night to experience.

Whilst not entirely unfamiliar with auctions a live fish auction is another experience altogether. Managed by the cooperative the fish is sold fresh off the boat without a catalogue as per other auctions. From slippery octopus making a bid for freedom, escaping the plastic bucket prison to fish of all sorts of sizes and colours was one thing, but trying to identify who bought the fish and for how much was beyond my novice auction experiences.

What better thing to do after a live fish auction that to visit one the of best sushi restaurants in the region. Freshly prepared in front of your eyes, you can but marvel at the dexterity of these chef craftsmen at work producing the coloured sushi whose taste blows anything else out of the water.

Another day of sightseeing takes me to Himeji Castle a World Cultural Heritage Site and an imposing white 6 floor building atop a hill.  Hime means princess and ji means street. The original layout of the castle, where original walls are now streets now carry sways of visitors, is that of a series of walls spiralling around the castle, but as you get closer to the Castle this become more obvious and remains just as dominating as yesteryear.

Moats and strategic ponds were dug for protection during battle but once penetrated the building simply shines with architectural designs from the various gates and doors to the roof tiles themselves being mini pieces of art.  With one large supporting column, a tree, with as wide a girth are ever, dissects each floor with its imposing strength and strategic placement.

After a few hours wandering around this unique piece of history, an easy ride by Shinkansen back to Kobe bought another experience not to missed whilst in Japan.  Japan is always on time, not the trains, people or buses, simply Japan, there is enormous respect for time and time keeping without it being rigid and unfriendly .  The Shinkansen is no different quietly gliding into the station to quickly whisk us back to Kobe and dinner at the Plasir Kobe restaurant.  Kobe beef, the marbled beef simply cooked enhancing its flavour and intensifying the taste delivered in true Japanese style was the icing on the cake for this amazing day.  This is some of the best beef I have had whilst visiting Japan.

Nine holes of golf the next day bought me to Hanayashiki (hannah-ya-she-key) playing the Yokawa golf course.  What a treat it was to play a members club, the fairways meander their way around the course again providing reflective ponds in the early winter sky.  A good test for all golfers the course is a lovely mix of gentle fairways swaying around the natural landscape, large receptive greens and the ever present yellow tough rough.  I really enjoyed playing this course and especially so as it is home of the Studio Alice Open, on the LPGA circuit.  The clubhouse is a futuristic looking ‘war of the worlds’ style over various floors giving the best views of the course and surrounding countryside as you went about your leisurely lunch in this relaxed atmosphere.

Hashi and Masu might not mean a lot to us, but to the Japanese these are essential with Hashi being the chop sticks and Masu being the wood bowl for Sake.  I got to have a go at making the Masu – it has to be said that the glue of sticky rice wasn’t enough to help my poor workmanship to contain the precious liquid, so I may revert back to the ornate glass option!

A new hotel that night was the NESTA Resort in Kobe a large family orientated resort with everything the family might want from hotel rooms to time-share type apartments on offer but that night was another first and special treat for dinner.   Irori restaurant, seated on low stools up to a special long table this bbq style of dining is a lovely way to socialise.  In the middle of the table, small whole fish were unceremoniously staked on wooden skewers tilting towards the white hot sticks for cooking and a mesh grid to place the raw food upon to cook for yourself. Dressed in western clothing but being given wooded clogs with no toe posts was interesting to walk on as you rock back and forth to propel forward.  Just collect your shoes on your way back out – easy, simple and such a lovely experience.  A great atmosphere and of course great food as my friend took up the challenge of being chef for the two of us.

One final game of golf awaited before my departure and this time at Tokyu Grand Oak Golf Club, a great 18 holes where I got the chance to play with two Japanese business men and my playing partner, a fellow Brit.  A friendly game and good time followed as our last chance to play in Hyogo prefecture as a stunning day evolved and the sun shone to give us 15 degrees heat. Perfect weather, but this was about the only time I could use the word perfect as my game was quite off.  Gently undulating winding fairways with the, again, yellow thick rough offsetting the vibrant green fairways and greens and bright blue sky.  The whole course was in good condition and I once again marvelled at the time of the year, having had a whole year of golfers go through, this and all the other golf course I played we in amazing condition.  Tokyu Grand Oak is another must play for golfing visitors.

Finals night bought traditional celebrations of great food and a traditional martial arts Kendo demonstration using swords followed by a lively display from high school children playing the taiko drums.  A fantastic night to end a fantastic trip.

This trip was focussed on the Hyogo and Shiga prefectures, but it would be remiss of me to not mention Mie prefecture which I visited the month before.  All three prefectures, Hyogo, Shiga and Mie are in the Kansai region of Japan

Mie is the traditional place of food production for the Japanese Emperor it became known as the ‘miketsukuni’ (land of imperial repasts) this is the possibly the best way to describe Mie, a rich fertile prefecture with history of its own.

Take the Ama, female divers who still dive daily for their fish to sell at market.  Fresh fish is caught daily and now served in the Ama hut cooked over the open fires you can get anything from lobster to abalone to various fish served with sticky rice and other accompaniments for a true authentic experience.  The Ama ladies are a dying breed, with some still diving well into their 80’s but as it stands today they are tight knit community of caring and sharing women, just wanting to please you as they serve their catch of the day with a smile.

Golf in Mie offers another dimension to golf in Japan.  Tsu (Sue) Country Club being 18 holes of golf set amidst the most beautiful backdrops of the hills, as it meanders around the countryside bringing into play the deep bunkers and narrow entrances to the greens to large target greens and thought provoking holes.  I love the thought taken when building this course, the surrounding country side is not flat by any means and you can find yourself playing fairways with nothing else around you. The on site Katada Lodge accommodation is a mix of a few simple hotel room styles to the two bedroom villa which seamlessly and gently blends into the background yet having a foreground view to die for down the 18th hole.  A members club the clubhouse and restaurant are welcoming and offer the most amazing food as you take a break from your golf after nine holes of golf.  If you have time the display of cooking over the hot Teppan metal plates where the food is grilled, boiled or panfried a process called Yaki, culminate in the whole experience of Teppan-yaki. Providing endless entertainment with honest earthy tasting food, is a welcome addition to your visit to Tsu.  Be mindful the food is so good it is difficult to get up and play the back nine after that feast.  But getting onto the back nine at Tsu is definitely worth it as the course sets off down the 10th with a slightly elevated tee taking you right then left to a well guarded green before sweeping you off away from the clubhouse to reemerge on the 18th.

Tsu Country Club was where I was based for my few days in Mie, sleeping in the villa with its own hot bath overlooking the 18th fairway, knowing that despite your nudity, you were completely secluded.  The morning bought a special treat as I pulled back the paper shutters with light wood frame and wandered out of the villa down to the 18th green barefoot just enjoying the grass between my toes waiting for another exciting day ahead and knowing I would be coming back to the comfort of the villa.

Forgiving the name of the next course, OGG Excellent Club is another one to visit whilst in Mie, a large cafe style clubhouse overlooks a golf course which is simply stunning.  It always struck me that the facilities don’t match the course as you play round this thoughtfully designed course crossing over wooded bridges to reach your green over a large expanse of water giving the illusion of the club house floating.  Some interesting holes take in the afternoon reflections as I played on my arrival day, slightly jaded but ready for some fresh air.  Always a great start to one of my trips to Mie and really set the bar high

Mikimoto Pearl island is also worth noting when visiting Mie prefecture.  In 1893 Kokichi Mikimoto devised a way to ‘grow’ pearls or the cultured pearl as we now know it.  You can shuck for oysters or watch the female divers demonstrate their prowess as they dive for oyster to open for food and maybe, just maybe a pearl will be inside.  Whilst their unique whistle lets you understand their refined breathing technique whilst diving.  Bring your wallet as the pearls are displayed in large glass shops to purchase on your way out in a no pressure sell environment, but a lovely way to take home an authentic piece of Japan

Another great golf course of note in Mie is Nemu. 18 holes of golf that takes in recently redesigned undulations and as you go about your business of playing golf.  Some redesigns have been deliberate yet with consideration for its original layout, so you must take a moment to look around as you approach the half way hut which has the best views from any toilet I have ever witnessed!  Overlooking the Ago Bay into the Aegean Sea it is simply breathtaking with the blue green sea and the dotted lush green islands sprouting up.  You don’t need to go to the bathroom to experience these views of course, you can see them from a few holes on the golf course as the holes nip and tuck around this beautiful natural part of Japan.   Despite it being on the coast, it plays more like a parkland than a links course, just with amazing views of the sea.

Moving onto Oyado The Earth, a hotel set on the peninsular totally out of the way, I wasn’t really too sure what to expect.  As I arrived at the hotel, check in wasn’t as you would normally experience; leave your shoes at the lower step and you are whisked away to your room wearing nothing but your slippers.  I’ve got to honest, I think I had the best room in the house, and what a room it was!!  Overlooking the ocean, the peace and tranquility I felt as I entered the room was nothing compared to the ‘back garden’ in which was private Onsen and pleasant seated area with views over the garden to the sea in the not too far distance.  Oyodo The Earth even has an observatory where you can star gaze or just enjoy the vast ocean views from the raised platform.  Get up early enough and you may just catch the Ama ladies of the region fishing.  Breakfast and dinner were in the main restaurant, a big display of everything colourful, carefully matched yet bizarrely unmatched gave its appeal as each dish was deliberately placed in front of you.  And if you were still hungry after a huge dinner you’re given a bowl of rice to take to your room after dinner.  Eating dinner was done wearing a yukata, provided by the hotel, a simple unlined gown with a belt making for a comfortable dinner and expanding enough to take infall that delicious food!

An afternoon cruise around Toba Bay is an interesting experience as you pass the far and wide flung fishing nets dotted along the coast line in symmetrical lines with only the boards to walk as the fishermen check their catch.   Cruising around the bay to Meoto Iwa, a pair of rocks connected by a thick ornamental straw rope that represent Japan’s creation deities, Izanami and Izanagi.  The meaning of these two rocks bound together with rope ‘wedded rocks’ and long regarded as husband and wife.  The couples rock is regarded as a torii  (an entrance gate or shrine) for worshipping the Japanese goddess of the sun.  It would be something to see these natural stones at sunset as they are bound to each other weathering all the odds, as in marriage.

Golf in Japan is more than just golf, when visiting a country with such diverse cultural differences, one has to make time to do many things more than golf, that said with in excess of 2300 golf courses, you will also be spoilt for choice in this regard too!

I’m looking forward to visiting Japan, getting to know this beautiful understated country and sharing with you more golf, gastronomy and lifestyle experiences.  But if you want to experience them for yourself, just drop me an email and I will point you in the right direction.

Check out my You Tube channel for more visuals on Japan and much more:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCSdGpxFnd1rPsfuoO5ivEOg

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I am freelance golf lifestyle journalist who has many years in the golf industry – how can I help you?

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