Niseko, Hokkaido, a region renowned for skiing, has now become a great golf destination in its own right.
Louie Chan samples the summer delight in Niseko, Hokkaido, a region renowned for skiing, has become a great golf destination in its own right.
Golfing in Japan is about the highest quality: beautifully maintained courses, outstanding food, generally great weather, perhaps the world’s highest standards of service. But some may question if it’s really worth the effort and cost. Well, the summer thaw in Hokkaido reveals a slew of standout courses that have been hibernating under a blanket of snow and, unlike those elsewhere in the country, await those keen to experience the game without the drawbacks of the usual slow play and high prices.
The Australian entrepreneur Peter Murphy started SkiJapan in 1996, having witnessed the stunning amount of dry snow deposited around the iconic Mount Yotei, aka “The Mount Fuji of the North”. Having conquered the ski market, the effervescent Murphy has now determined that golf in the area is as underappreciated as skiing was two decades ago and has established Yotei Golf, a dedicated travel company based in the shadow of its namesake. Leveraging the superb accommodation, leisure businesses and bars and restaurants constructed for the winter visitors, and having built relationships with a growing number of first-class courses in the area, Yotei Golf now offers complete stay and play packages for any golfer wishing to visit the region.
Once largely private, the boom and bust of the late 1980s to early 1990s led to many of the courses in Hokkaido opening to the public and prices plummeted. While painful for the developers, it has made the region a golfer’s paradise. Having such a breadth of facilities available in the most sparsely populated area in the country means tee times are readily available and at bargain prices.
Golf courses here open from May through October. The weather is perfect for golf at that time, and unlike elsewhere in Japan, 36 holes in a day is easily possible - although a leisurely 18 followed by a visit to the onsen (hot baths) is a delightful alternative.
The Hanazono Golf
This 7,003-yard championship course in Hanazono is a stunner, and is the most soughtafter course in the Niseko area. Excellent facilities, superb conditioning and memorable holes, with Mount Yotei forming a breathtaking backdrop on many of them.
The wind plays an important part here and the four par-5s can make a mockery of the stroke index if the breeze is coming from an undesired direction. The 16th, in particular, is a spectacular beast when played into the breeze. The par-3s here are also memorable features - all four are challenging - especially the 17th, which from the elevated tees looks longer than its 177 yards. The green is narrow, and a lake protects the front. With the wind comes straight towards the player (as it was the day we played) a par here is a great result.
Water comes into play on many of the holes, and, with no two consecutive holes playing in the same direction, you couldn’t stop keep asking yourself questions on the tee.
The Rusutsu Resort – Riverwood Courses
There are two Rusutsu golf facilities and be careful not to mix the two! The Jumbo Ozakidesigned course by the resort funfair and ski lifts can be safely bypassed, and instead making your way to the superb Riverwood facility, just over half an hour from Niseko. It features two Curtis Strange designs - not-so imaginatively called River and Wood - and a superb chalet-style clubhouse. The clubhouse is renowned locally for its “Genghis Khan Barbeque”, which takes place on a huge wooden deck and is cooked on a hotplate in the middle of your table. Icecold beer, which is poured from the taps on the deck itself, makes for a great finish to a highly
enjoyable 36-hole day here.
The River Course compensates for its shortness by being ill tempered if not treated with respect. Narrow fairways with steep run-offs on either side would be painful enough. That the run-offs often lead to out-of-bounds makes this a tricky track to master. As the name suggests, water plays a part on many holes and it’s best to keep the big stick in the bag and plot your way around here. This is especially true on the par-5s, which are all short enough to reach in two, but all feature narrow landing areas.
Overshadowed by the elegant Wood Course, nevertheless, this is a very fun course indeed, with the 208-yard par-3 17th and the brilliant risk-reward 18th - measuring less than 280 yards providing a nerve-tingling finish to any close match.
The Wood Course here is undoubtedly one of the best in the region. A more forgiving layout than the River, this is nevertheless no pushover. The picturesque 2nd is an early wake-up call: rated handicap index one, this is a tree-lined monster at 454 yards; accept a bogey and move on. As with every course in this area, the scenery is breathtaking and makes it difficult to concentrate on keeping the ball in play. As ever, the wind is a factor, made more challenging due to the sheer number of trees that shield its presence from the tees. Overall, a delightful combination of beauty and bother, you will want to come back to play again and again.
Mount Yotei forming a breathtaking backdrop on many of the holes at Hanazono Golf
Mount Yotei, aka “The Mount Fuji of the North”
The 14th hole of Rusutsu River Course
Water comes into play
on many of the holes
The wind plays an important part at Hanazono Golf
Top: The picturesque 2nd of Rusutsu Wood Course is an early wake-up call; Above: The clubhouse of Rusutsu Riverwood is renowned locally for its “Genghis Khan Barbeque”