I should probably be writing about life in Korea at this point, having lived here for four months at this point. And I will, sooner rather than later. Today, though, my head is firmly in the clouds.
Or at least the memories I made above them. Before I left Japan, there were a few places that I was bound and determined to see. Unkai Terrace in Tomamu in Hokkaido was at the very top of that list. In the winter months, Tomamu is a well-known and popular ski resort, but in the summer, the attraction is all about the clouds. Unkai (雲海) is a nifty Japanese word that translates to “sea of clouds, and it’s a phenomenon best seen from mountaintops, where you’re above the cloud cover. The most famous example of unkai in Japan is most certainly the sunrise view from Mt. Fuji…which I had already sought out and then spectacularly failed at seeing a few years prior.
Unkai Terrace, for all its glory, is not a destination for those who like to sleep in. During the summer months, when the terrace is open to the public (and not, you know, covered with several meters of fine Hokkaido powder), the gondola’s first ride departs at four or five in the morning, with the final ride to the top leaving at seven or eight, depending on the month. There’s a reason for that ungodly hour; once the sun rises, that bright summer light burns off the damp, chilly cloud cover. It’s not exactly the best activity if you’re planning on hitting the snooze alarm a few times, but for the early birds, Unkai Terrace is wonderful, and it remains as one of my favorite spots in Hokkaido.
Logistically, getting to Tomamu and its clouds is…less than ideal. Although direct trains run from Sapporo to Tomamu, the earliest train at seven a.m. won’t get you there in time. If you’re sans car, like I was, the best option is to take the last train from Sapporo at nine p.m. (which will run you just over 4500 yen for a journey that takes an hour and forty-five minutes) the night prior. Thankfully, shuttle buses run between the train station and the nearby hotels. The resort hotels that share the property aren’t exactly cheap, and if you balk at paying a premium for a bare five hours of sleep, you can do as I did, and curl up in one of the quiet, deserted lobbies to doze and charge your phone until the free shuttle buses to the gondola station start up. A return ticket for an adult will cost you 1,900 yen (which you’ll likely hand over in a bleary-eyed state of grogginess).
It definitely is a game of luck, though, and it pays to check the weather forecast ahead of time. The unkai phenomenon isn’t one that happens every day, and on the morning I went, it was drizzling, cold, and generally miserable. I spent my thirteen-minute gondola ride through misty, half-lit darkness wondering if I’d be doomed to repeat my Fuji sunrise. That fear continued up to the 1,088-meter summit, where a solid gray wall greeted me.
Unkai Terrace is also ungodly cold in the morning, and the terrace seats are covered in frigid dew that will definitely jolt you fully awake if you decide to plop down without drying them off first. Thankfully, there are long, insulated parkas provided as protection against the morning cold, and after treating myself to a steaming hot cup of 雲海ココア (“unkai hot chocolate”, which was covered a thick, fluffy layer of whipped cream) I bundled myself up in one to fitfully catnap until the sun (hopefully) decided to show itself over the clouds.
The patience to hunker down paid off, because when I started from my doze, the sun was just starting to peak over the horizon, and the foggy mist had miraculously evaporated to reveal a solid, expansive layer of clouds. It was like the ground a thousand meters below the terrace didn’t even exist, so substantial and solid did the cloud cover look. The shifting shadows in the clouds looked like chiaroscuro that had leapt off of a canvas; once you see those clouds and the sunlight playing off the top of them, the early hour, the chilly morning dew, and the feeling of “I just need an IV of caffeine”….none of them matter anymore. In light that bright and unfiltered, edges seem sharper, colors brighter, and the air clearer. If not for the manmade terrace and the gondola whirring thirty meters away, the layer of clouds that cloaks the earth could fool you into thinking that nothing existed below them. Unkai Terrace is one of those places that makes you realize just how small you are and that, no matter what technological marvels people achieve, the things that exist in nature will always, always be more amazing. Whatever mankind can do, it can’t do this.
From the Unkai Terrace lookout, there are a few other attractions, like the post office, which has a dizzying amount of postcards to send home to friends and family for a few hundred yen, and the suspended “cloud walk” that hangs you out over the mountain’s edge. And for the truly ambitious, there’s a path up to the summit of Mt. Tomamu that’ll let you work off your 雲海ココア. Perhaps if I’d been running on more than a few hours of stolen naps in uncomfortable positions and a cup of hot chocolate, I’d’ve made that hike, but I was content to return to the ground…but I’m pretty sure a piece of my mind stayed up in that layer of fluffy, crepuscular clouds.