Keys to the Green

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The Japan golf experience is an exclusive one, noted for its manicured korai and bent grass greens, midcourse meal break and traditional onsen ritual at the end of the full day at the course.

Unlocking one of Japan’s most exclusive courses, Elleair Golf Club Matsuyama.

The courses in Japan are often referred to as “golf’s best-kept secrets,” famed for their man- icured korai and bent grass greens and privatized exclusivity. Golf in Japan is a privilege often reserved for members, where players often take an entire day to traverse a course, stopping for a 40-minute break for a quick meal of fresh udon noodles in the club before finishing the course and ending with a traditional onsen bathing ritual.

As golf prepares to make its second debut in more than a century as an Olympic sport with the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan’s courses are getting more play, where many of the country’s less than 2,500 golf courses can be found on the island of Honshu. A number of the country’s top courses on the big island are opening up to the public and even relaxing their stringent dress codes to attract a broader audience, but it’s on Japan’s smallest island of Shikoku in the Setouchi Region that one of the most exclusive and authentic golfing experiences can be found.

Simply follow the road signs for the Elleair Golf Club Matsuyama (elleairgc.co.jp) to wind up at the seven all-suite room Setouchi Retreat Aonagi (setouchi-aonagi.com/en), a luxury hotel perched at the top of the mountains of Matsuyama. Built by world-renowned Pritzker Prize winning architect Tadao Ando, the building was originally commissioned by the Elleair Country Club as luxury accommodations for the private golf club’s VIP guests. Ando’s vision was to strip away the unnecessary and create a minimalist retreat in the mountains where guests could sojourn with art while basking in the tranquility of the surrounding landscape.

He created an art gallery in the basement that quickly grew in fame, opening to the public in 1998 and playing a vital role in the Setouchi International Art Festival. In the last few years the prop- erty was reimagined and redesigned by the architect himself into a boutique luxury hotel, offering its guests exclusive access to the prestigious private Elleair Golf Club Matsuyama. The club is best known for hosting the LPGA of Japan’s Daio Paper Elleair Ladies Open each year, where celebrated Japanese golfers Mayumi Tanaka, Ai Suzuki, Hiroko Azuma, and Shiho Kawasaki made some of the courses most challenging shots look easy.

Although the 18-hole course is usually closed to non-members, guests of the Setouchi Aonagi are among the very selective few who are allowed to play the Par 72 course, enjoying a 1-minute commute via golf cart from the hotel to the club greens. Visitors are required to ar- rive 20 minutes before tee times, where blazers and jackets are required until end of play (June to September blazers and jackets are optional). The dress code at the course requires close-toed golf shoes (no metal spikes allowed), a shirt with a collar or turtleneck with a collar height of no less than 3cm, and shorts must be a minimum of knee-length for males. Rain gear or warm clothes are not allowed in the restaurant, and hats and visors are frowned upon at anytime in the clubhouse. If guests must use a towel, it must never appear around the neck, only on the shoulder or lowered on the waist.

The clubhouse features a restaurant, a pro shop, and a relaxing lounge with a fireplace and changing rooms, but guests of the Setouchi Aonagi have the added benefit of returning “home” to their private spa space with two rooms dedicated to full-body treatments featuring “ALL THAT SPA” products made from Setouchi’s natural elements like yuzu, tangerine, and pomelo.

Two of the Aonagi’s most defining features are its incredible pools. The Cave is a year-round heated pool that also houses a hot spring Jacuzzi and a sauna, all of which can be rented for private use in increments of 60 minutes. The Blue infinity-edge rooftop lap pool offers the hotel’s most iconic viewpoint as it looks out over the Seto Inland Sea, where hotel staff all agree that September offers the most stunning views as the sun sets directly over the glassy waters.

Meals at the Setouchi Aonagi’s restaurant Minagi are an event in and of themselves, where meticulous preparation and intricate presentation is matched equally to exquisite flavor and superior ingredients from local farms and fisherman. The restaurant serves traditional kaiseki cuisine, where multiple courses of washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine) are brought to the table, including items like tamagoyaki, Waygu beef, and innovative dishes of local fish. Menus change each day.

Each of the seven suites at the hotel offers a completely unique experience, where Tadao Ando pulled upon his vast expertise to curate each room with a sense of tranquility and individuality, arranging all of the furnishings and artwork in a way that allows the architecture to speak for itself. The four hot spring suites at the property feature large square open air flat bathtubs carefully designed with a section of the tub that allows only 5 centimeters of pure hot springs water for guests to lie back and read or watch TV on a waterproof tablet provided by the hotel. The views are different with each hot spring suite, with the fourth floor hot spring suite swapping a balcony in exchange for a stunning panoramic view of the nearby golf course and Seto Inland Sea in the distance.

The garden suite’s wood furnishings and wood deck create a natural setting for gazing out onto the property’s manicured grounds, and can accommodate up to three people with one bedroom and an open living and dining area. The four-bedroom suite is ideal for couples or families traveling together since it comes with two separate bathrooms and bedrooms with four beds inside of an expansive 1,076-square-foot space. Floor-to-ceiling windows give this suite an amazing viewpoint each night as the sun sets beyond Seto Island.

The crown jewel of the Aonagi’s accommodations, the Aonagi Presidential Suite, happens to sit at the same elevation as the 450-meter Tokyo Sky Tree observation deck, where guests have uninterrupted views of the Seto Inland Sea as well as the chain of islands that freckle the clear waters. Large-scale windows enhance the open feel to this expansive Maisonette suite, where eight meters of crystal clear glass frame the view beyond. Relaxation is key to the design of this suite, where guests can relax in the living room on the suite’s first floor before heading up- stairs to the two bedrooms or for a soak in the Jacuzzi bathtub.

Before and after tee times, golfers can opt for a day trip with the hotel’s shuttle service to see some of the island’s biggest highlights, including the Dogo Onsen (Japan’s oldest hot spring), Hiroshima, the Matsuyama Castle and Onomichi.

It’s the Setouchi Retreat Aonagi’s curated combination of bespoke golf, art, dining and overnight experiences that make it one of the region’s top golf resorts and one of the world’s most memorable stays for many discriminating travelers.

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