GlidingPast Fuji – C.H. Alison in Japan

Thomas MacWood

“Gliding past Fuji, still snow-capped, the luxurious Asama Maru passes accurately among a thousand sampans and comes to a rest alongside a modern quay.”

This is how golf architect CH Alison described his entrance into Tokyo Bay. A disciple of a movement in golf design that began outside London and spread through the Western world, Alison was the first and only golf architect of that sect to set foot in Asia. Invited to Japan in 1930, he brought a philosophy of architecture born on the natural links and melded it perfectly with the Japanese aesthetic to produce an enduring legacy. The impact of his short visit was so forceful that seventy years later it remains the dominant influence on design in that golf crazed nation. But Hugh Alison was not the first visitor to have an altering effect on Japan.

The Setting

In the 17th Century Japan was involved in a trading network that included Europe and her neighbors China and Korea. The Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English all established themselves in the Far East and with them came Christianity.

At this time Japan was controlled by a form of centralized feudalism, divided into smaller fiefdom ruled by warlords and their samurai. These warlords congregated in the capital of Edo (Tokyo) advising the greater head of state – the Shogun. Fearing the effect of this foreign faith on homeland loyalties, the Japanese leadership cracked down.

By 1616 all Roman Catholic priests were banned from Japan. The next step was a series of decrees to close the country from all foreign influence. The English left on their own accord, the Spanish and Portuguese were banished, and the Dutch stayed but were confined to a tiny artificial island in Nagasaki harbor. To ensure sakoku, or closed country, all Japanese were forbidden to travel abroad and those who did could never return on pain of death.

Only small domestic coastal ships were permitted in Japan’s waters, unauthorized ships were fired upon. Shipwrecked foreign sailors were to be “killed in the surf” before reaching dry land. Foreign books were illegal. For the next two centuries Japan was isolated from the world.

That would all change in 1853. A naval flotilla led by Commodore Mathew Perry attempted to enter Edo (Tokyo) Bay on July 2nd. The American warships were six to seven times the size of any ship in Japan and were equipped with considerable firepower, especially when matched against the antiquated Japanese arms. Japan had little choice and Perry was permitted to land. The Perry mission was to deliver a message: humane treatment for distressed foreign sailors and the right to provision in designated Japanese ports. It also suggested that commerce be established. This incident sparked the development of modern Japan.

Although Japan enjoyed significant cultural development through the ‘closed’ era, the country lagged behind technologically. To catch up quickly, Japan sought expertise from around the globe. The oyatoi (honorable employee) was brought to Japan to teach a cadre of applied arts and sciences. The military, medicine and the sciences looked toward Germany; the French taught legal systems; the British brought naval, textile and steel-making skills; America was the model for the educational system.

In addition, many Japanese sought education abroad at British and American universities. It was said the Japanese did not possess an original or inventive mind, but one must remember the modern nation of Japan was quite young, and the speed of their progress hardly gave the Japanese time for inventiveness, but there can be no dispute, the Japanese were brilliant imitators. As Japan expert William Williot Griffis wrote in 1933, “being eclectic, it may be said that the Japanese first adopt, then adapt, and finally become adept in most what they experiment upon.”

The assimilation was not solely found in Japan. Japanese art with its mysterious allure fascinated the Western world. In the late 19th Century the phenomenon of Japonisme was a major influence upon the arts and in particular on the Aesthetic movement. In Paris and London the American painter James Whistler created Japanesque compositions, as did Manet, Toulouse-Letrec, Gauguin and Van Gogh. In America one of the most important art educators and artists, Arthur Wesley Dow was inspired by the art of Japan. He was also a major proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement, with its similar philosophy of craft being on par with fine art.

In America, architects Frank Lloyd Wright and the Greene brothers exhibited a distinctive Japanese flair. After a tour of America, Charles Ashbee, the British Arts and Crafts leader wrote, “Greene’s work [is] among the best there is in the country. Like Lloyd Wright the spell of Japan is on him.”

 Dawn of Golf

Back in Japan, the opening of worldwide commerce brought a number of foreign nationals who set down roots. One such man was an English tea merchant, Arthur Groom, who came to Japan in 1868, settling in Kobe and taking a Japanese bride. He enjoyed outdoor pursuits, especially mountaineering, exploring the wild beauty of the mountains above Kobe. With the summer heat stifling, Groom built a mountain bungalow on Mt.Rokko as a seasonal retreat. As the story goes Groom and his friends (over glasses of whisky) would lament the absence of golf in Japan and one summer evening decided to do something about it. There is no record of an actual designer (Groom is credited with pushing the project), but by 1902 there were 3 or 4 golf holes in play on Mt.Rokko. That increased to nine the next year and the Kobe Golf Club was born in 1903 with 120 members, mostly Scots and English. A second nine was added in 1904–the 4135 yard course of today is very much as it was a century ago. Ironically Groom did not play the game prior to constructing the golf course, he did father 16 children however, so perhaps time was an issue.

As word spread of the links at Rokko-san another group of foreigners developed a nine-hole course for the Yokohama Golf Club (1906). At this time there was a growing number of Japanese living abroad who had fallen for the game, and upon return to Japan there was no course available to them. One such man was Junosuke Inouye, ex-Governor of the Bank of Japan, who had picked the game up in New York. He was the major force behind the creation of the first golf club created by Japanese for Japanese — the Tokyo Golf Club in Komazawa opened in 1914. The course was designed by an American named Brady, the captain at Yokohama GC, and a Scot veteran named Colchester. This marked the true beginning of Japanese golf.

As the game’s popularity increased, there not only became a demand for more courses, but also better courses. Many Japanese had experience the game in Britain and America, and had an appreciation for the excellence of modern golf course design. They were not satisfied with simply being able to play the game on the primitive courses found in Japan. It was in the 1920’s that the quality of golf architecture slowly began to improve. Hodgaya was the first modern Japanese design-it was carried out by Walter Fovargue who had been involved with Lakeside in San Francisco, Annandale in Pasadena and Wawona Hotel at Yosemite. The Crane brothers of Kobe were fine golfers, born of English father and Japanese mother, they created the original short eighteen at Naruo in 1924. David Hood designed and built the fine course at Ibaraki (1925) and in 1926 the Tokyo GC was expanded from nine to eighteen.

Looking West

The Tokyo layout at Komazawa was described as “a delightful little course . . . very well trapped and bunkered.” Its location was convenient to the majority of members who worked in the city. Regrettably when the course was originally developed among the rice fields in 1913, the club made the decision to lease the land, but as the city of Tokyo developed and expanded, the Komazawa location became prime real-estate. The landholders forced the club to make a decision, either purchase the land or move. Unfortunately the price was exorbitant, plus the course was short with no room to expand. The decision was made to move.

At the time Hodogaya was considered the premier golf course in Japan. Although a solid design, it was far from perfect, being on hilly land it featured more than a few blind shots. The new breed of internationally savvy golfers wanted more, and one such man was Tokyo GC’s Komyo Otani. He had been exposed to the game as a student in England, and was among a group of Japanese who admired the heathland golf courses outside London. When the decision was made to move, Otani, along with a handful of like-minded members, considered it the perfect opportunity to build a course to rival the best from overseas. And who better to carry out the design, none other than the world’s premier golf architect – Harry Shapland Colt. His design portfolio was superb, including the heathland gems of Swinley Forest, St.Georges Hill, The Addington and Sunningdale-New; the redesign/modernization of the championship venues at Hoylake, Lytham, Muirfield and Sandwich; and a collaboration with George Crump on what was considered the world’s greatest golf course, Pine Valley. In 1929 Otani convinced the Club to approach Colt and surprisingly he agreed.

As part of his agreement Colt commanded a handsome fee of £1500 (…½ 17,500 at the pre-war exchange rate), as well as the cost of travel and living expenses while in Japan. Unfortunately Colt, now 61 years old, hadn’t traveled overseas since 1913 and the long voyage concerned him. Instead, he designated his partner CH Alison to make the trip and carryout the design. This news was not well received back in Tokyo. The club had already invested a great deal on the new site at Asaka (nearly …½1 million) and now was expected to pay a large fee for an unknown architect. Otani did not waiver. He along with his ally, club secretary Tashira Shiraisha, were convinced Alison was their man.

In a shrewd move Shiraisha called a directors’ meeting in August when most were away on holiday avoiding the summer heat in the mountains, and without opposition Alison’s invitation was easily approved. Otani would later rationalize, “I believed it was necessary, not only for the club, but also for the future of Japan’s golf world.”

Charles Hugh Alison was no golf design neophyte. Born in Lancashire, England in 1883, he had been educated at Malvern and Oxford. Better known for athletics than academics, Alison excelled at both cricket and golf. He was the youngest member of the Oxford and Cambridge Golf Society’s team, captained by John Low, which toured America in 1903. Following a short career in cricket and golf journalism, Alison became the secretary of the new Stoke Poges Golf Club in 1907, a Colt design in the London outskirts. It is believed he dabbled in design while serving as secretary, but he didn’t devote himself completely to golf architecture until after WWI – going into partnership with Colt and Alister MacKenzie. Almost immediately he was dispatched to America where he worked throughout the twenties, producing a number of impressive designs, including Kirtland, Fresh Meadow, Burning Tree, North Shore, Century, CC of Detroit, Timber Point, Sea Island and Milwaukee. With economic difficulties effecting American work, the Japanese project presented an exciting opportunity.

Japanese Exploits

Hugh Alison arrived in Japan in early December 1930 aboard the luxury liner Asama Mura from California. He did not travel alone, bringing along one of his most trusted construction supervisors, George Penglase. Upon arrival in Yokohama Alison was taken to the Asaka site for the Tokyo GC, inspecting the 200 acres with Otani, Penglase and Rokura Akaboshi, a fine golfer who had been educated in the States. After studying the site, Alison, armed with contour maps, secluded himself in the Imperial Hotel (a Frank Lloyd Wright design) and after seven days emerged with detailed plans for the new course.

Alison described the terrain at Asaka as “land as flat as a pancake.” The tract comprised numerous small farms and was for the most part devoid of trees excepting a few large pines. However Alison was given creative freedom, a significant budget (Ã…½ 300,000) as well as an incredible army of laborers — 60,000 strong. He likely viewed the site, devoid of natural features, as a blank canvas to employ his creativity. “Money was not spared, and a picturesque lake, much planting, and many artificial undulations and bunkers have alleviated the deadness of the plain and have put some life into the golf. The wide and flat natural terrain naturally resulted in an excellent sequence of holes, in plenty of alternative lines of play, in the easiest walking imaginable, and in an attractive conjunction of the 9th and 18th greens under the windows of the Club House. Though it lacks the thrill of spectacular landscape set in wild surrounds, Asaka is a pleasant course to play and from the back tees is sufficiently exacting for the ambitious. It was very well constructed by Mr.George Penglase, whom I brought with me from the United States.”

Completed in May 1932 and measuring 6700 yards, the Tokyo Golf Club was the country’s first outstanding golf course – a landmark in Japanese golf architecture. Rokura Akaboshi remarked the Asaka course ” had a revolutionary impact on Japanese golf and will become a historic asset in the future.”

After the work had begun at Tokyo, Otani and Alison traveled to the retreat of Baron Kishichiro Okura at Kawana ostensibly for some R&R. The son of one of Japan’s most powerful and wealthy businessmen, Baron Okura was educated at Cambridge in the early 1900’s. After returning from Britain, Okura dreamt of creating a country estate in Japan like those he admired in the English countryside. He purchased 500 acres on the spectacular Izu Peninsula, built a rustic lodge and then asked Otani, his friend from his London days, to build a golf course. The Oshima course – named for a volcanic island just off the coast – was completed in 1928.

In describing the scene, it appears Japan was starting take hold of Alison, “This paradise is at least two hours from Yokohama, and much of the journey is along a narrow and earthquaked road, cut in the rocky coast. It lies among the hills beyond the hot springs of Ito, on a pine covered plateau bordered by red cliffs which descend down to a blue sea. From a wooded bay, a mile distant, a fishing village sends out boats with brown sails to complete the last detail of a perfect scene. At dawn the white mist gives way it the rising sun, and soon the branches of the pine trees are etched crisply against the light. And I, rising from the grid-iron which serves for bed, and refreshed with a beaker of soya-bean soup, set out to do my stuff.”

And so he did. Okura’s vision evolved from a woodsy retreat to a first-class golf resort and hotel, and certainly he had the experience, having built the Kyoto Hotel in Kyoto and Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel. Part of this new vision was a second golf course designed by Alison, “He [Baron Okura] contemplates the construction of a second eighteen-hole course, also on the edge of the sea, and anything which he undertakes is certain to be first class, the scenery resembles that of the French Riviera, but at not a single spot between the Italian and Spanish frontiers can found so superb a combination of sea, cliffs, trees and mountains . . . The course will be on rolling land, which provides an immense amount of variety, and will be quite first-class.” Several years later he would write, “The terrain itself is not mountainous, nor even unduly hilly, but it consists of rock. It was essential to place the fairways and greens in positions where there was soil, or where soil could be persuaded to stay: and at the same time to obtain enough visibility for the second shots. I sympathized with the constructors of this course. I have never heard the result of their labors, but conjecture that they overcame their difficulties and produced the most beautiful course in Japan.” After an initial delay, Alison’s Fuji course at Kawana was opened in 1936.

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