So what makes you think golf will stick?
What could be better? You not only get out of standing-room-only Tokyo—where you now must be able to prove you have a place to park before you can buy a car—but also get to be in the group at the same time. To be alone and together.
And forget weekend golf. Golf is such a national jones in Japan now, that going to the driving range has become a hobby in itself. Of course, most of the ranges are on top of buildings, surrounded by nets. There's no land for golf. You can't buy three square meters in the Ginza for $1 million these days.
But the best and biggest range is freestanding—Shiba Golf, the world's largest practice range. When you first walk into Shiba Golf in downtown Tokyo, you notice that it's hailing. Or are those golf balls? One hundred and fifty-five golfers, stacked on three stories, turn the sky white. They hit their shots onto a 280-yard rubber-matted landing area, surrounded by nets 100 feet high.
This place is Japan at its finest. The balls roll downhill into a trough, which is banked so that the balls then roll outwardly to gutters on either side of the range. The gutters have conveyer belts that take the 500,000 Shiba balls to the basement to be cleaned and dried; then they are sent to two men who sit, day and night, pulling out the scuffed and damaged balls. Next the balls are whooshed up three floors by a pneumatic system and channeled into the reservoirs at each of the hitting stations, where the customer simply pushes a button and the clean, dried, cut-free balls come tumbling out.
Of course, unless you've arranged a tee time at the range in advance, you won't be pushing any buttons for an hour and a half or two hours. That's the usual wait, without a reservation, for a first-floor spot. No problem. Shiba Golf also has a swimming pool, bowling lanes. TV lounge, three restaurants, beer garden, massage, sauna, pro shop and golf-travel bureau with a giant board telling you where you might be able to get a weekend tee time within the next two months. Right now, that's nowhere.
So when do they play?
A lot of Japanese don't. There's a story about a PGA Tour player who, while visiting one of these driving ranges, comes upon a golfer with a beautiful, fluid swing.
"What do you shoot?" the pro asks the guy.
"I don't know," he says.