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Mountain town boasts surprising golf heritage

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Elaborate techniques are required to produce iron heads. The local industry in Ichikawa is highly acclaimed by customers domestically and abroad. The photo was taken at Fujimoto Gikoh Co. in Ichikawa, Hyogo Prefecture.

By Tsukasa Oya / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer ICHIKAWA, Hyogo — Everyone can enjoy golf, from top pros to amateurs, regardless of age or gender. Among the several kinds of golf clubs that serve as partners to players, the iron is particularly important.

In Japan, the head of the iron — the tip of the club — was successfully mass-produced for the first time in 1930 in the town of Ichikawa, Hyogo Prefecture. Highly skilled craftspersons, who have inherited the tradition of the techniques, are producing many fine iron heads and supporting the sport.

Accuracy of 0.5 degrees

Children’s voices rang out from a plant of Fujimoto Gikoh Co. that is surrounded by farmland.

“Children come by after school. They are jovial, aren’t they?” President Katsuya Fujimoto, 64, said with a smile. Katsuya and his two brothers took over the family business from their father Minobu, and the 14 employees at the company are all relatives.

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    A man prepares to hit a ball on a simulator on the grounds of the plant.

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The company, which was found in 1965, mainly produces the heads for irons. Golf clubs include drivers for long-distance hitting and putters used to roll a ball on the green. Irons come in several types, and each of the heads helps players lift the ball at different loft angles, according to distance and situation. Irons can be called the important clubs that hold the key to conquering golf courses.

The loft angles are very subtle, with an acceptable margin of error of up to 0.5 degrees, and the production of iron heads requires accuracy.

Soft iron, which is a relatively flexible metal, is heated, put into a mold and pressed. This production method is an application of swordsmiths’ forging techniques that result in the flexibility of an iron.

The angle is measured with a protractor one by one, each head is shaped with a hammer, and the angle and weight are adjusted with a grinder.

The company cranks out 1,000 to 2,000 iron heads per month, and once produced heads for professional players, including Tateo Ozaki. With the excellent quality of their products highly appreciated, they are receiving an increasing number of orders from overseas.

Production mecca

There are more than 10 golf-related companies, including Fujimoto Gikoh, in Ichikawa. The unexpected relationship between the mountainous town and iron heads dates back to the prewar period.

According to the town’s chamber of commerce and industry, the Miki branch of the industrial research institute of Hyogo Prefecture received an iron head as a material for production research around 1928. A researcher at the institute asked Seitaro Morita, a blacksmith in then Kawanabe village (now Nishi-Kawanabe district of Ichikawa) to produce the item. Morita employed a number of swordsmith-type techniques and, through trial and error, finally developed a way to produce iron heads.

He then was able to mass produce them. It became a local industry that is boasted as the “birthplace of domestic iron heads.”

In the 1970s, 70 percent of iron head production in Japan took place in the Harima region, where the town of Ichikawa is located.

However, the industry slowed down after oil crises. In addition, the number of players has declined in recent years because of the falling birthrate. Under such circumstances, the town is struggling to make the industry survive. For instance, an organizing committee comprised of the town government, among others, held a golf festival in April.

Young people take leadership

Katsuya places high expectations on young people including his eldest son Yusuke, 36. Yusuke, who worked at a major golf maker, aims to build his company brand, while bringing a breath of fresh air into the company by methods that would include working together with an overseas designer to formulate a sales strategy. “We must create innovative products,” he said.

His cousin Seiya, 36, earned his certification as a Class B professional golf instructor from the Professional Golfers’ Association of Japan.

Seiya holds classes using a simulator with which a player can hit a ball toward a screen installed at the plant that measures distances. Through the classes, he tries to promote the products and select clubs suitable for customers.

“I want to hand down the techniques to next generations, with the pride of knowing that we work in the birthplace of domestic iron heads,” Katsuya said.

The tradition of these crafters will be passed down to the next generations.

■ Ichikawa, Hyogo Pref.

Golf-related companies in the town do not accept visitors without appointment, in principle. The Ichikawa chamber of commerce and industry, which is a 5-minute walk from Amaji Station on JR Bantan Line, introduces companies that allow visitors to tour their factories free of charge, with reservations made at least 10 days in advance. Orders for irons and other products are accepted online. For more information, call the town chamber of commerce and industry at (0790) 26-0099.Speech

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