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Empty golf links highlight charm and despair of remote rural Japan

Missing putts, missing people and splendid scenery are par for the course

The final hole on Ojikajima Island's rare, five-hole course (Photo by Andrew Thomson)

Playing golf in Japan is expensive unless you venture to the farthest reaches of the country. It is here you will find a few extraordinary golf courses that are very cheap to play and barely known, even to the Japanese. You will also see at first hand the acute problems plaguing Japan these days -- a rapidly aging population and the consequent shortage of labor that makes it difficult to support existing industries and nearly impossible to create new businesses.

For adventurous golfers with an appetite for fresh fish and wagyu beef, start in the far southwest, with a visit to the upper Goto Islands. These remote and underdeveloped islands, off the coast of Nagasaki city in Kyushu, are known historically for their population of "hidden Christians," the subject of Shusaku Endo's novel "Silence," on which director Martin Scorcese based his recent movie of the same name.

In the northernmost Gotos are the islands of Ojikajima and Ukushima. Each has a population of around 2,000 people -- farmers, fishermen, mechanics, local officials and retired folks. On each island, the locals have built their own small golf courses on seaside land that is used for grazing wagyu cattle. Ojikajima's five-hole course has a small log cabin that functions as a clubhouse, while Ukushima's nine-hole course has none. At each course the local golfers cut the grass themselves, and you can forget any idea of finding a caddie. But the golf is spectacular, with many holes sitting right on the cliff edge overlooking the ocean.

If you want to experience golf as it was played a century ago these are the courses for you, preferably playing them with hickory clubs to understand how the game felt in the years until 1930 when steel shafts and turf machinery were developed. Both islands are seeing their populations shrinking sharply. People are steadily aging, and almost nobody is moving out to the islands from mainland Japan.

Such islands are called rito in Japanese -- distant islands. Japan's government is desperate to keep them populated for national security reasons, yet the fiscal burden of subsidizing ferry services, schools, post offices and the like is very heavy.

"We really need new people," sighs Tabuchi, local chiropractor and chairman of the Ukushima golf club, which has 25 members.

On Ukushima locals built their own golf course on wagyu cattle-grazing land overlooking the East China Sea. (Photo by Andrew Thomson)

"With so few members, just keeping the turf maintained is tough," complains Yoshimoto, secretary of the Ojikajima golf club, which has 55 members, half of whom do not live on the island.

Both islands are a 90-minute ferry ride from the city of Sasebo, which hosts a joint U.S.,-Japanese naval base. In recent years some large Kyushu-based companies considered installing a huge solar energy project for Ukushima -- the world's largest, they claim -- to be built on the golf course land. But with feed-in tariffs falling and Kyushu already oversupplied with renewable energy, the project looks like sharing the fate of the island's population by gradually fading away.

At the other end of Japan is Hokkaido, which houses both the country's northernmost golf course at Wakkanai (where Russia can be seen on the distant horizon) and its easternmost course at Nemuro. Both courses open when the snow melts around the start of May and close for winter in late November.

Wakkanai's golf course is about 1.6 km inland from the beach. It was built cheaply, without much earthmoving, and thus has delightfully natural landscape features that are rarely seen on other Japanese golf courses. The turf is soft, deer graze here and there, and most fairways offer a view of the Sea of Okhotsk.

Wakkanai, like most of rural Japan, is suffering from a falling population. In 1975, it had a population of 55,646, but by 2016 this had fallen to 35,675 and seems to be continuing its decline. The golf club went bust a few years ago and now is run by a staff of two. The club committee is aging, but they still love their course. One advantage of visiting Wakkanai is the opportunity to sample the magnificent cuttlefish shabu shabu for dinner.

Depopulation places Japan on the edge of a demographic cliff. (Photo by Andrew Thomson)

The town of Nemuro lost its only obstetrician last year since its birthrate had fallen so low. Its fishing industry may be strong -- global tennis star Naomi Osaka's grandfather once served as chairman of the cooperative -- but nobody new is moving there. Yet the nine holes of Nemuro Golf Club are a real delight. Like Wakkanai, the course lies close to the Pacific Ocean, since the town lies on a narrow peninsula. The course is generally flat with subtle undulations, not unlike the links at St Andrews in Scotland.

"That's what we are, the St Andrews of Japan," says one of the club members proudly. Nemuro, at least, has a proper clubhouse and sufficient funds to employ a few men to keep the grass cut.

"If you could get more tourists to come here, you'd be better off," I suggest to my playing partners. They look skeptical. This is a fishing town. Why would people come all the way here?

In the quiet moments between shots on these golf courses, one's thoughts turn to the plight of these villages suffering from the aging and depopulation crises. Abenomics, as the government's reflation policy is known, amounts to a program of printing money, cutting interest rates to negative, and spending endlessly on public works projects in rural Japan. The 2019 draft budget recently set a record for spending at 101.5 trillion yen ($894 billion). A third of the spending will be financed by new bond issues, which the Bank of Japan will largely purchase in its role as the government's magic money box.

Is this money printing helping to bolster the birthrate? Not really. But neither is it depressing the birthrate. Without this spending on projects in the depopulated parts of Japan, local economies would suffer severely. Small town commercial districts would be utterly empty. Despite all this pump-priming, these local economies barely function already. Farming, fishing, and small manufacturing just are not enough to sustain those who live there.

Somehow Japan has lost its will to innovate, to develop new technologies and to compete with the rest of the world. A pervasive conservatism has infected much of working and social life, leaving regional Japan a museum-like landscape of rural beauty and Asian culture. Buddhist temples of astonishing grace, Shinto shrines of perfect simplicity, small fields of rice or vegetables, and orchards of flawless fruit decorate the countryside. Yet behind it all are dying towns, shuttered shops, and unending road projects or concrete barriers piled up along island shores to protect against typhoons.

Abenomics works to preserve the tranquil beauty of rural Japan and sustain its culture. but what is going to save rural Japan from the hollowing out that you can see, hear and feel? The digital economy is barely discernible here, stunted by too many large corporations whose overweening presence in national policymaking makes the startup sector a minor sideshow instead of a pathway to the future.

Whether it is the distant Japanese islands of Ojikajima and Ukushima or the peripheral towns of Wakkanai and Nemuro on Hokkaido, nothing the government is doing can maintain the population and provide a secure future. But if you are after Asia's rarest golf courses, ones that charge a green fee equivalent to a simple lunch in Tokyo, nothing is better.

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