14 February 2007

Japan Golf Tours

Finally, a company dedicated to helping international golfers get access to and experience some of the most amazing golf available anywhere in the world, and it's right here in Japan! I had an opportunity to speak with owner and founder John Thornton, a former USGA committee member and gentlemen with a lot of experience in the golf game, about what led him to creating golf tours to Japan.

Tell us a little about your golf background and how the game became such a big part of your life?

Golf has always been a big part of my life. I grew up less than 100 yards from Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York in the States. The course has hosted several U.S. Opens, a PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup.
My father was a great amateur player and I grew up playing and caddying, then working on golf courses. I eventually became a golf course superintendent or greenskeeper for several years. I owned and managed a golf course in New York State, became very active in the Rules of Golf and started conducting golf competitions. I have been a Committeeman for the USGA for many years. Eventually I became the Executive Director of the American Seniors Golf Association and the International Seniors Amateur Golf Society, having retired from those positions last year to start Japan Golf Tours with my good friend Mr. Tobita.

What brought you here to Japan and what were your first impressions of the Japanese courses?
Through the International Seniors, I had the very good fortune of making many wonderful friends from Japan. My Japanese friends love their golf and I was so impressed by the way they respected golf's great traditions and always played by the Rules. Being a Rules Official for many years, that really impressed me.

The first course I played in Japan was Abiko Golf Club in Tokyo, the home of Isao Aoki. I have so many fond memories of my first round of golf in Japan. First of all, the lady caddies were so much fun and so intuitive. To look at them, you wouldn't necessarily think that they know a lot about golf. I remember one hole where I had walked across the fairway to hit my shot carrying only a 4 and a 5 iron. Upon reaching my ball, I realized I needed more club and started back towards the cart, but my "caddie-san" was way ahead of me. She was already half way across the fairway with my 3 iron walking towards me! She just smiled and bowed politely... Needless to say, I was impressed!

I also remember seeing a maintenance worker way up in a huge, ancient pine tree with a tiny pair of pruning shears, maintaining the tree's very artful "Japanese" appearance. I don't recall ever seeing anything like that anywhere in the world and being a former, very cost-conscious greenskeeper, I was adding up the costs in my head of maintaining the artful appearance of 150 acres of trees!

My fondest memory from that day, however, was hitting an errant tee shot on one hole that struck what I was told by my friend Mr. Yamashita, was a sacred tree! On the side of it was a small box that I thought was a birdhouse. My friend instructed me to place a coin inside the box, place one hand in a prayer-pose and bow slightly, as an offering to the Shinto spirit of the tree that I had upset! Strangely enough, I then went on to hit an uncharacteristically fine shot that led to my only birdie of the day!

Another thing that struck me is how the Japanese truly cherish the game of golf. It is the same game played anywhere else in the world but the Japanese have put their own indelible mark on it. They embrace the great traditions of the game and have instituted some of their own. Many people I have taken to play golf in Japan have all used the same word to describe it....civilized.

Golfers in Japan, for the most part, play very quickly but that does not mean they are in a hurry to leave the course. After they play what they call the "out" nine holes #1-9, there is a break for sometimes as long as an hour to sit and have a full lunch in the clubhouse. Then, after the "in" nine #10-18 has been completed, there is one of my very favorite pastimes, the Japanese bath. After a round of golf, nothing soothes the tired muscles better than this uniquely Japanese custom. Following the bath there is another perhaps more universal custom, a visit to the 19th hole. After the Japanese bath, nothing can compare (at least to me) to that first glass of ice cold Japanese beer!

What do you think makes a golf tour in Japan different from other countries?

First of all, Japan Golf Tours offers a tour that probably could not be duplicated anywhere in the world. Our "Private Club Tour" is a 9 day tour that includes 5 rounds of golf on Japan's most famous and most exclusive private clubs, including Hirono Golf Club, the #1 ranked course in Japan. All of our featured courses are in the top 50 of Japan's private clubs, and we get to experience a part of Japan that perhaps only a handful of Japanese ever get to see.

Aside from that, I would say it is the sum total of the experience that makes it unique. We enjoy great sightseeing, experience the unique ancient Japanese culture and are treated to some of the freshest and most delicious food in the world. We stay at first-class accommodations and get to experience what is to me, one of the great wonders of the world, the Shinkansen Bullet Train. That alone is worth a trip to Japan! We do a bit of world-class shopping and, believe it or not, we even set aside a little time to relax.

Why is the golf industry here so closed off and what would you like to see happen to help open it up?

Tourism is a huge industry but the Japanese have some catching up to do. I believe that Japan's golf courses are some of its greatest national treasures but Japan is not yet recognized as a legitimate golf destination. Part of that is due to the fact that travel and, more specifically, golf in Japan have always been perceived as being phenomenally expensive. The truth is that Japan is now no more expensive than any other golf destination in the world. Golf, lodging, dining and travel in Japan are all now surprisingly affordable. Even the airfares to and from Japan have come down significantly in price.

One of my first impressions of golf in Japan was that I saw almost no foreigners on the golf courses. I have played golf in over 15 different countries and everywhere I played, I would see tourists. If you look in the back of any golf or travel magazine, you will see golf tours advertised for every corner of the globe but not, until now, for Japan. I wondered why. At first, I thought that maybe the Japanese did not want a bunch of "crazy" foreigners playing on their golf courses, but I came to find out that wasn't true.

The truth is that most Japanese golf courses did not know what to do with foreigners. The customs of playing golf here are very unique to Japan and the staff basically speak Japanese only. That is why golf tours by us are always escorted by guides who speak not only Japanese but also the language of that particular tour's clients. Golf in Japan, as it is today, is not designed for foreigners traveling on their own and bi-lingual guides are a necessity.

Japan seems to struggle to see itself as a golf destination. They are a conservative people but are beginning to realize that golf tourism is a huge market and there is no reason why Japan cannot become one of the world's top golf destinations. It will take time but I suggest booking a tour now before the golf world discovers Japan!

Are the courses and people receptive to groups of foreign golfers?

The Japanese are some of the most courteous people on earth. It is one of the things that makes this island country so fascinating. It is not unusual when bringing a group of foreign golfers to a course to see the entire, uniformed staff standing in front of the clubhouse bowing in unison. As mentioned before, language can be a problem but with a bi-lingual guide, you will realize how very happy they are to accommodate golfers from different parts of the world and how eager they are for you to enjoy yourself. The Japanese are a highly resourceful and adaptable people.

It's a great time to play golf in what I like to call "the world's last, great, undiscovered frontier". I believe that once the Japanese get a feel for dealing with foreigners at their courses, Japan will become known not only as a great golf destination, but also as one of the friendliest.

John, Thank you for your insight and we wish you and Japan Golf Tours a prosperous 2007 and great success in showcasing Japans courses to the world.

Bennett Galloway, 14 February 2007

Previous Columns
  • Gearing Up for Winter Golf
  • Respecting Your Game
  • Adrift in a Sea of Golf Balls
  • The Secret to Scoring Well "Shhh.....Don't Tell Anyone"!
  • Hakone, the Gem of Kanagawa and a Resort Golfers Paradise
  • Golf in Japan: A primer to golfing in Tokyo
  • Time to thaw out that golf swing
  • Golf made easy

  • About Bennett
    Bennett is a long time resident of Japan and the Director of Golf for Gotemba Golf Club and Belle View Nagao G.C., in Shizuoka near Mt. Fuji. Member of the Golf Writers Association of America and a teaching professional, providing lessons for all ages and abilities, in English or Japanese. He also specializes in in-bound golf tours to Japan with Golf Shizuoka and Golf Hakone.

    Contact Bennett »