Aizu-Wakamatsu City is remote by Japanese standards: just over two hours north of Tokyo by Shinkansen (bullet train), followed by a connection of another hour or so by local train. During the winter, heavy mountain snows can block those local tracks completely. The region’s isolation was a reason it became one of the final strongholds of the Tokugawa Shogunate – the system of shoguns and samurais so often recalled in the minds of Westerners when thinking about Japan. In the Boshin Civil War, when the feudal Shogunate ultimately fell to the unification effort of the Meiji Empire, Tsuruga Castle – stronghold of the ruling clan of Aizu – burned in 1868. This military battle is famous for the story of the Byakkotai, 19 teen-aged samurai who escaped the castle to a hill overlooking the town. When they saw smoke billowing from the castle grounds, they wrongly assumed their master had fallen, and they committed seppuku (or hari-kiri, ritual suicide). The battle raged, though, for a few more days.
The flip-side of this bloody history is the artistry of the Aizu region, which is equally famous and also owes its uniqueness to isolation. During the centuries when Japan was fragmented by feudalism, subtle but distinct differences in even the most traditional arts and products evolved quasi-independently. Today, every city in Japan claims fame for something – sake, rice, silk, blade-smithery. Kitakata, a small town near Aizu-Wakamatsu, for example, boasts arguably the best ramen noodles in the country. Aside from premature self-disembowelment, Aizu is famous for its lacquerware. Lacquer is a hard, shiny coating derived traditionally from the resin of the Chinese lacquer tree. It is applied in many coats to wood, metal, or today, even plastic to create brilliant, colorful designs on everything from jewelry to vases to golf clubs.
Did I say, “golf clubs?”
In 2022, Japan’s premier golf equipment company, Honma, introduced the BERES Aizu line of golf clubs, all of which feature designs and flourishes inspired by and faithful to the centuries-old lacquerware tradition of the Aizu region. These eye-catching, ball-smashing clubs do require a certain amount of financial sacrifice, but they also infuse your game with beauty, honor, and performance that are well worth the price.
Playing the BERES Aizu Driver
The history of Aizu above is just a fraction of what I would like to relate. I lived in Aizu-Wakamatsu for three and one-half years in the early 1990s while on the faculty of the University of Aizu. I am extremely fond of the region, its people, history, and artwork. So when I saw that Honma was coming out with a lacquer-inspired line of clubs, I just had to try them.
The BERES Aizu Driver is every bit as stunning in person as it is in the photos on the Honma website. It comes in several different color and pattern combinations, and the artistry is unrivaled in anything I’ve ever seen on a golf club. It is true that this artistry comes at a cost — $949 for the driver in gold or rust; $1,149 for black – but if you have ever dreamt of playing clubs that will turn the heads of everyone at your course, such is the price of that dream’s fruition.
When I lived in Japan, it was common to see rather plain-Jane drivers for $1000 or more on the shelves of department stores in Tokyo, so the cost of the BERES Aizu is not so surprising, especially given inflation. Nevertheless, what you get from the Aizu today is far, far more technologically advanced than those vanity drivers of the 1990s.
The foundation of the BERES Aizu line is prime materials – the Radial L-Cup face is constructed from Ti811 titanium, for example. How this differs from other titaniums, I am not certain. What I do know is that I have never EVER seen a shinier club face. Even more amazingly, after playing a couple rounds with the Aizu, it was just as shiny as before it ever struck a ball. Behind that brilliant face is more engineering genius: a triple-groove sole that maximizes speed and launch trajectory and a lightweight crown (despite the lacquerware flourishes) that moves the weight deeper and farther back in the clubhead. Finally, the ARMRQ MX Shafts, which come standard in the Aizu, are constructed by Honma from a proprietary carbon-fiber and aluminum-strand composite. These also feature lacquerware-inspired detailing.
How does all this beauty play? Well, beautifully. Although the SR (~stiff) shaft felt a bit whippy, a controlled swing produced long, long tee shots. The ball “popped” off the face with a subdued sound that belied the length of the ball flight. I asked a local high-school golf coach and low-handicap player to hit a few shots with it, too, and he agreed: “I really like the way the ball comes off that face. It goes a lot farther than you think it’s going to because it feels and sounds so smooth.”
Elegant. Elegant is the word I would use to encapsule both the appearance and performance of the BERES Aizu. Think tea ceremony, origami, sushi, kabuki – precision, detail, beauty, skill, and execution. And power – like those fabled samurai.
When I lived in Japan, I always connected the nation’s love of golf to its warrior history. Golf clubs are sort of like modern-day swords, and each one has its own unique role to play in the battle raging from the 1st tee to the 18th green. The BERES Aizu makes me realize that the Japanese love for the sport also taps into the people’s love of artistry – which is valued as much for its beauty as well as for its temporary nature. Neither rounds of golf nor precious art nor even dynasties last forever. But they can be memorialized and honored much longer. Tsuruga Castle burned in 1868, but it was rebuilt and stands today as the major landmark of the Aizu region. It is surrounded by hundreds of cherry trees whose famed blossoms emerge, spark great joy, and then fade each spring, and the graves of the Byakkotai still overlook the glorious, transient sea of pink-red flowers.
Honma’s BERES Aizu line of clubs are designed to honor the history and artistry of Japan as well as the noble game of golf and the dedication of all who love it. Clubs this beautiful enhance your experiences on the course, none of which are precisely the same, and all of which are fleeting. Their memory, however, will last long after the round has finished; some will even be revered like the equipment with which they were made.