Golf Ranges (from the Kansai Region of Japan), 2001
These are the golf driving ranges that dot the suburban landscape of the Kansai region of Japan (a megalopolis consisting of Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe). As seen from commuter trains, these structures tower above their surroundings like hollow, steel cathedrals. Because real golf courses are rare and expensive in mountainous Japan, the enclosed golf range is a uniquely Japanese solution to the demand for the prestige of golf despite the scarcity of open space.
From October 2000 until June 2001, I lived in Osaka and photographed these structures. As I wandered the streets, I constructed a romantic image of myself as a naive Eugene Atget, seeking to capture the essence of a society I couldn’t comprehend or interact with. Instead of recording the disappearing world of old Paris, I was studying a leisure phenomenon almost alien to me. Being unable to speak Japanese, I had little social interaction while photographing these open-air palaces of solitary leisure.
Over the span of a few generations, Japanese society has become accustomed to the imitation of nature, sometimes even preferring it to the real thing for the sake of convenience. Throughout the cities, small-scale reproductions of natural features admirably perform their functions in the absence of natural space such as that possessed by a country like Canada. As a substitute for a golf course, the enclosed golf range suits the needs of the Japanese golfer just fine. Even the painted water hazards and sand traps are more functional than their natural counterparts (the balls can be retrieved by automated rotating arms, and returned via steel troughs to the driving deck).
I was drawn to the immense size and unique designs of the driving ranges immediately upon arrival to Japan. They seemed to dominate their surroundings, and appeared in such numbers that it was impossible for me to ignore their cultural significance. Amid the incredibly dense and winding streets of Japan these structures dwarfed their neighbors. Each one was unique in every way: color, shape, length, width, height, and structural design. The most incredible thing about their size was that they were completely empty and weightless inside. To stand next to one was like standing beside a six storey jellyfish floating in place. The netting seemed to sway in the wind like the sails of a huge, immobile ship. The ranges were as mysterious as they were beautiful to me, since I could not ask questions. These images are an exploration of that mystery.
In addition to their beauty, I feel that the open-air/fenced-in golf range (as opposed to the North American-style golf dome or open-field design) mirrors several cultural features nearly specific to Japan. The transparency of the netting reflects the Japanese architectural philosophy of blurring the boundary between inside and outside, at least in appearance, not in function. On the inside, solitary golfers practice their swings in relative privacy. This socially important, yet ultimately frivolous activity is safely confined within the fence, keeping it out of the public space and within a prescribed zone. Strangers (outsiders, foreigners, et cetera who are all reduced to the same term, gaijin) are also confined or excluded by the same sort of transparent wall. Modernism has been likened to a thin veneer on the millennia-old traditional Japanese lifestyle. Social concepts such as inside and outside carry very different meanings in Japan, with its tight-knit family unit, and its love-hate relationship to foreign (American) hegemony.
As these structures begin to appear in North American cities (such as Toronto), is it a sign that the needs of the North American golfer can be met as easily, despite the popularly perceived abundance of natural space? Are they a solution whose time has come to a problem we do not yet wish to recognize? Has the North American relationship to nature changed so drastically already that we also no longer require the real thing to do something as environmentally-dependant as play golf?
Like Atget recognizing the disappearance of something to be one day missed, these golf ranges deserve notice, before they become a symbol to visitors for something that has already disappeared. They are a sign that nature can be squandered and replaced without our notice. They will one day be a lingering trace of something we clearly don’t value as much as we say we do. As much as they represent the marriage of leisure and convenience, they also represent a battle between tradition and acceleration.