The enormous geodesic dome at right adorns a hilly piece of land on the outskirts of Tokyo, looking like a late-model UFO or a brobdingnagian mushroom. The latter impression is not irrelevant, for the building serves, in a sense, as a monument to golfu, a game that is mushrooming in a startling way throughout the islands of Japan.
For the past decade golf has been Japan's fastest-growing sport. Ten years ago there were fewer than 40 courses and 90,000 players, but today there are 458 courses and something like three million active players. What was once the preserve of princes now belongs to the sarari man (the salaried worker). Other Japanese hardly lock up anymore when one of their countrymen standing in a bus queue or riding an elevator begins to twist and squirm, weave and rotate. Everyone knows he is just rehearsing the odd convulsions of his golf swing. Taking advantage of this, one Japanese entrepreneur made a minor fortune by fashioning an umbrella handle into the shape of a golf-club grip, thus giving workbound golf enthusiasts something they could really practice with.
From dawn until well into the late hours of the evening, there are mob scenes at the nation's 600 driving ranges, several of them three decks high and accommodating 300 people at a time. Some of the golfu kichigai (golf nuts) carry a club to work with them, hoping to steal a few minutes' practice at a nearby range during the morning and afternoon coffee breaks or lunch hour. Even geisha girls and bar hostesses have been affected by the shift in sporting interest. Numbers of them have learned the game, and are available to fill out foursomes for relaxing Japanese businessmen.
Next week a considerable quantity of this new Japanese enthusiasm will be centered on and around the dome of the 4-year-old Yomiuri Country Club. Yomiuri is the site of this year's Canada Cup matches, which feature the two leading professionals from 36 countries around the world. As with just about everything else involving Japanese golf, the Yomiuri course and its clubhouse are both new and startling to Western eyes. The clubhouse is the creation of R. Buckminster Fuller, daddy of geodesic-dome construction. It took nearly six years to build, cost $400,000 and is formed of 585 octahedral units of translucent polyester glass fiber, with no beams or pillars supporting the ceiling or dividing the cavernous space beneath. The dome is 62 feet high at its apex and 164 feet across. Inside, there is a Japanese garden with two waterfalls, the traditional wooden bridges and delicate arrangements of azalea, camellias, miniature pines and other flora, all of which create the impression of being within a large greenhouse. The garden, the decorators point out, includes "two mountains, one of rugged contour [male mountain] and the other of soft contour [female mountain]." A Japanese teahouse is at the edge of a pond and a dining room looks out over the 18th green, while such functional necessities as office and kitchen are fastidiously hidden by walls of greenery. Architecturally, the Yomiuri Star Dome, as it is called, is a phenomenon of modern times; esthetically, it rivals nature.
Adjoining the dome is a glass-and-concrete building containing such facilities as the golf shop and locker rooms, and beyond that a sort of junior dome encasing a community bath. There the weary golfer can soak and soothe his nerves while taking in a magnificent view of Mt. Fujiyama. (Despite all this, Yomiuri is by no means the best club or the best course in Japan. As with all Japanese private golf clubs, its members are allowed to sell their memberships on the open market. Yomiuri memberships go for about $4,000, while those for some other clubs sell for as high as $10,000, this in an economy where the average monthly income is $180.)
Such extravagant accessories as those at Yomiuri are an integral part of Japanese golf, where form is on a par with substance. That, in itself, may help to explain the epidemic proportions the sport has attained in Japan. Golf is a game that lends itself to ceremony and ritual. The Japanese appreciate and cultivate such amenities to ease the strain of life on their crowded islands.
For instance, a one-day golf outing is considered to be ideal entertainment for a group of Japanese businessmen. And what a day it is—something in the nature of 15 hours, portal to portal, for the Tokyo executive. First there is a homicidal ride through Tokyo's dawn traffic to make a 9 a.m. tee-off. Then the slow progress around the course, often a matter of five hours, for the quality of Japan's golf has not yet caught up with the hazards imposed by its advanced golf architecture. There is a brief stop for lunch, followed by 18 more holes in the afternoon, a program that often leaves any foreign visitor more intent on survival than success. The strain is sometimes even too much for the sturdy Japanese; unusual numbers of them are carted off courses suffering from sunstroke and heat exhaustion.
It is not, however, until this physical ordeal is completed that the most delightful contributions of the Japanese to golf become evident. Having shed his wilted clothes in the locker room, the golfer takes himself a long and languid bath in a comforting community tub that is the size of a small swimming pool.
Then he dresses for the evening and repairs to the club terrace, where the social dividends of the game ensue. He consumes exotic drinks—peach-flavored daiquiris are a favorite—and eats and talks business and golf with his companions. For a finale, there are awards for the day's play. These tend to include both trophies and expensive gifts, some of the latter no doubt planned to help mollify Japan's new golf widows. But the favorite gift of all is a set of U.S. golf clubs. Import duties have raised the prices on U.S. clubs to three times what they are in America, while perfectly good Japanese clubs sell for as low as $50 a set. But nothing can rival the prestige of owning U.S. golf equipment. This is so well known that Japanese customs officials inspect U.S. tourists' golf clubs more carefully than their luggage, and if you take a new set of clubs into the country you would do well to bring it out again.
Intensity is the word to describe what the Japanese have brought to this once-pastoral game of the Scots, and their courses reflect an intense devotion to grace and perfection. The courses are, by American standards, tight and very hilly, for the laws of Japan forbid the construction of recreational facilities on arable land. If you want to build a golf course, you have to find 200 acres that cannot be farmed. This usually means a rocky hillside that could not even be terraced for a rice crop, or perhaps a marsh. You carve away with the bulldozers, but even then there are not going to be many level stances.