Golf’s ability to present us with powerful landforms never ceases to amaze me. That was the impression I carried away from a recent trip to one of the game’s most dynamic settings – Kawana Hotel Golf Course, 75 miles south of Tokyo, on a tree-lined coastal cliff overhanging the Pacific Ocean.
There’s reason this place has acquired the reputation of being the country’s Pebble Beach. Kawana conveys a dynamism that is physically challenging as well as stunningly beautiful.
Given the terrain – 165 feet from high point to low, with numerous vertical switchbacks to provide 360-degree views every few holes - an apter designation might be “The Highlands Links of Japan.” That’s a more esoteric reference to Stanley Thompson’s ingenious walk on the wild side of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, Canada.
Kawana sports two 18-hole layouts. The Oshima Course, dating to 1928, is a par 70 that stretches to 5,711 yards. It’s tight, quirky, and a teaser or warm-up to the world-class attraction provided by the Fuji Course, par 72 and up to 6,701 yards long. Designed by Englishman Charles H. Alison and opened in 1936, it’s named for the iconic Japanese snow-capped peak, Mt. Fuji, 12,400 feet high, that can be spotted from the back nine on a clear day.
The vast bulk of Japan’s 2,300 golf courses are private and hard to access. Not so at this luxurious resort, a product of a period in Japanese history under the Showa regime of Emperor Hirohito - the 1920s and 1930s – when the country was still the object of Western aesthetic fascination.
Golf here was just starting up and played over native layouts that were sporting at best – cramped and filled with blind shots and steep slopes at worst.
That kind of intimacy, evident at Kawana-Oshima, was typical for the country’s courses until Alison arrived from England in December 1930 for a four-month visit. Originally commissioned to lay out a new course for Tokyo Golf Club, he went on to shape or influence a half a dozen other layouts, with Kawana-Fuji and Hirono Golf Club in Kobe remaining today as his gems and considered among the world’s most highly rated courses.
Alison, who had previously enjoyed design partnerships with Alistair MacKenzie and Harry S. Colt, was well versed in both coastal linksland and interior heathland. As the first classic-era, British-trained architect to work in Japan, he combined that sensibility with exquisite technical expertise.
A complete set of his hole-by-hole drawings for Kawana’s Fuji Course is on display in the walkway from the resort hotel to the clubhouse. A restoration architect would marvel at the period-piece detail they provide. They are drawn with an engineer’s precision, yet also as works of art, with measurements indicating fairway scale, bunker depths and green slopes.
Once out on the course in the company of a caddie you will likely experience a psychiatrist’s notebook full of emotions – on the first three holes. You start at the 415-yard, par-4 opening hole from a perched tee box looking down through a narrow cut of trees to a widening fairway and beyond it and below it, the green and the ocean behind. Having just started in awe at the downhill tee shot it’s hard to believe how much back uphill the approach is.
Only Spyglass Hill starts with comparable drama – and that course famously drops off in theatrics, never to return. Kawana-Fuji, by contrast, keeps delivering, with occasional pauses in the form of switchbacks and transitional par-3s on quieter ground so you can catch your breath and gear up for what’s next.
The offset bunkering provides great strategic options off the tee. At the S-shaped, 450-yard, par-5 third hole, the bunkering inside the dogleg right helps walk you up the 117 feet(!) from tee to green. On the 416-yard, par-4 14th hole, a massive bunker inside the turn helps create an all-or-nothing option on the tee shot, with a dramatic infinity-edge green waiting ahead.
The back nine is generally more open and less treed than the front. The clear highlight on the return is the 480-yard, par-5 15h hole, where the Galloping Gertie fairway evokes a bridge roadway buckling in severe wind.
For all the slope out there, the fairways hold the ball reasonably well – an unintended consequence of the zoysia (“koria”) fairways. Unlike most premier Japanese courses, the same bristly grass is found on the greens, making putting at Kawana-Fuji a matter of adjusting both to contour and grain. No worries there; as the female caddies with their motorized electric carts holding the golf bags all have helpful drawings of grain, slope and distance.
There’s a raw power of vistas and contours out there that is rare among playable golf courses. Years of modest but steady tree management have helped reclaim some long vistas that had threatened to become lost. And with a little more attention to details like recapturing some shrunken green and bunker edging the emotional intensity of Kawana-Fuji will be secure.
With the Olympic Games (and Olympic golf) coming to Tokyo mid-summer 2020 there will be considerable tourism interest in the country and more attention to golf. A public-access property of Kawana’s quality will surely prove a temptation to adventurous golf travelers.
The 100-room luxury hotel with its Imperial Art Deco design is appealing enough to anyone who cares about architecture. Add to that a golf course with Kawana’s heritage and landforms, and you have a unique experience that makes the journey here worthwhile.
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