By Bennett Galloway
Niseko - Asia's Answer to Whistler
Pristine powder, snow-wisped mountaintops and vast snowfields come to mind when thinking of Niseko, but when the snowfields turn to green meadows and lush pastures, golf takes center stage.
Situated at 43º N latitude, Niseko is generally as mild as Portland, Oregon, in summer and shares the same parallel with Nice and Monaco in Europe. It’s even south of the Bordeaux wine region in France. With the average summer temperature a comfortable, dry 21.7º C in August, Niseko is a four-season resort location poised to become an international destination and, potentially, the first Whistler-quality resort in Asia.
With that in mind, there are few better places in the world to build a golf course, and in the late ’80s and early ’90s, build they did. Hokkaido currently boasts 172 golf courses that offer at least 18 holes—and many courses that offer 36. That number of courses is more than 30 percent of all the courses in Scotland—the home of golf—and the same number of courses that existed in all of mainland China until early 2005.
Although Niseko’s golf courses evoke the feel and quality of a resort golf destination, they lack the pretentiousness that so often accompanies such exclusivity. The fresh air and clear views of Mt. Yotei from the nearby courses, coupled with a relaxed playing pace, really allows you to enjoy the natural splendor of your surroundings.
All the courses are surrounded by silver birch trees and chest-deep sasa (a bushy member of the bamboo family) that offer picturesque scenery, but love to eat your golf balls! As soon as the snow melts in early May, the courses become lush and green thanks to the use of predominantly bent Kentucky bluegrass that doesn’t go dormant in winter.
The surrounding area contains every accommodation option a holiday-maker might need, including bright new condos such as the Landmark (www.niseko-landmark.com), which features all manner of rooms, including those with multiple bedrooms and kitchens for longer stays. For a cozier, more local option, check out the surrounding communities, peppered with small pensions and family-run B&Bs.
For non-golfing family members, the area offers plenty of adventures including rafting, kayaking, mountain biking, tennis, soccer, indoor rock climbing, hiking, camping, fishing, horseback riding, 26 onsen (hot springs) and four places specializing in handmade ice cream “straight from the cow.” If you are looking for a bit of local flare, check out the annual Kutchan Jazz Festival July 30-31.
With so much great golf and so many things to do just an hour’s flight from Tokyo, a vacation to Japan’s version of Whistler is easier and much more affordable than you might think.
NISEKO GOLF COURSES
Niseko Tokyu Golf Course
Clubhouse: (0136) 23-0109
Course Rating: 73.0
The best golf in the valley. Opened in 1988, this course is located next to Hanazone ski resort, features spectacular views and a good combination of relaxed and challenging holes with well-placed water hazards. Self Play only. Soft Spikes only.
Niseko Higashiyama Prince Golf Course
Clubhouse: (0136) 44-1111
Course Rating: N/A
This pristine course is just minutes from the village of Hirafu and features bent greens and immaculately groomed fairways. Enjoy views of the skiing hill on one side and Mt. Yotei on the other, as well as glimpses of rolling potato fields through Silver Birch forests. Self Play only. Soft Spikes only.
Niseko Golf Course
Clubhouse: (0136) 58-3131
Course Rating: 72.2
Designed by Arnold Palmer, and just a 15-minute drive from Hirafu, this course is the undisputed local favorite and offers no extra charge for twosomes and even singles are allowed to tee it up for a mere ¥2,000 extra charge. Soft Spikes only.
Niseko Golf and Resort
Clubhouse: (0136) 56-2121
Course Rating: 72.2
Although this course has yet to achieve the standard found on the other courses in the area, it is perfect for beginners and makes for an affordable option. Enjoy views of snow-capped peaks until June. Just 20 minutes from Hirafu. Regular Spikes allowed.
For more information on golfing in Niseko, visit the Hokkaido section of Golf in Japan (www.golf-in-japan.com) or for golf tours check out Niseko Summer Connection (www.niseko-hirafu.com).
Niseko Tokyu Golf Course Hole #5
Set against the backdrop of Mt Yotei, this dogleg-right, 507-yard Par 5 requires accuracy off the tee. The fairway narrows at 260 yards with a water hazard on the left and an outcropping of silver birch trees on the right. An aggressive player can make the green in two, but the pin position might be cause for reconsideration. The green is one of the most challenging on the course with dramatic undulations that leave you with a lasting impression and respect for this beautiful hole.
— Ian MacKenzie, Managing Director, Niseko Summer Connection
Degrees of Se"par"ation
Name: Tom Watson (No, not that Tom Watson)
Occupation: Teaching Professional at Windsor Park Golf and Country Club What’s in your bag?
Driver: Callaway FT-3 Fusion Driver 10.5 loft
Irons: Callaway X Tour Forged irons with 52 & 58-degree wedges
Putter: Odyssey #6;
Ball: HX Tour 56
Favorite course in the world: Cypress Point Golf Club in California
Favorite course in Japan: Nikko Golf Club in Tochigi Prefecture
How often do you tee it up?
2-3 times a week
Who’s playing with you in your dream foursome? Billy Connolly (famous Scottish comedian)
Musashimaru (famous sumo wrestler)
A poorly struck shot that is "high and stinky." Usually applied to a popped-up drive that is higher than it is long.
“When I'm on a golf course and it starts to rain and lightning, I hold up my one iron, ’cause I know even God can't hit a one iron.” —Lee Trevino The Numbers Game
The average height, in centimeters, of Toru Tanaguchi, Kaname Yokoo and Nobuhiro Masuda, the three Japanese players to recently qualify for the 2007 US Open at Oakmont C.C. in Pennsylvania.
The number of 18-hole golf courses in Japan.
The number of 18-hole golf courses in Japan that, including caddie, cost more than ¥30,000 to play.
The number of strokes it would take a scratch golfer to complete a round at Golden Valley G.C. in Hyogo prefecture—making it the most difficult course in Japan.