When I was a child, I used to stare up at the sky from the windows of our 4-door station wagon and imagine myself hopping gracefully from cloud to cloud like a hare foraging through the lush greenery of a freshly pruned golf course. On family trips to visit distant relatives, I vividly recall the exact moment of the jetliner breaking through the mist towards the upper reaches of the troposphere, revealing an endless collection of round, fluffy cumulus basking in the unobstructed ultraviolet rays. Looking out upon the floating sea of white, I often wondered if it were possible to perch myself at the edge of this wonderful abyss, to literally reach out and stroke the soft fur of the docile-looking vapor as it moved elegantly through my young fingertips. On the morning of October 14th, 2003, at 2100m above sea level on my 3rd and final day in the Hakuba section of the Japan Alps, my wish came true.
Unzipping my tent fly, I rushed out to fulfill my childhood fantasy, standing on the edge of an infinite expanse of cloud stretching out to Mt. Amakazari hovering on the milky horizon. Crouching down, I brushed my bare hands across the silvery mist, immune to the subzero temperatures that would normally turn exposed skin into a frostbitten mess. For this brief moment of time, nothing else in life mattered.
The Japanese have word for this phenomenon. It’s called 雲海 (unkai), which literally translates as ‘cloud sea’. It actually happens quite frequently at the higher elevations, but usually the clouds gather hundreds of meters below your vantage point. Rarely does one find him or herself camped on the shores of the alabaster sea.
I spent the next 3 hours taking in the scenery from the warmth of the open-air bath, as snow flurries fell gently from the stratus clouds high, high above. I’d given up all hope of traversing over to Mt. Karamatsu the moment I stepped out of the tent, opting instead for the gentle descent back to the start of the hike at Sarukura. I wanted to leisurely savor this unforgettable spectacle, doing my utmost to break down camp as painstakingly slow as possible. Occasionally the mist would sweep up over me, severing my view of the outside world like a prisoner forced into a poorly-lit cell,
only to retreat as gingerly as it rose, re-uniting me with my childhood love.
Eventually I worked up enough courage to take those first important steps in my long descent back to civilization. Just before dropping down into the fog for the remainder of the hike, I turned around for one last look at what I now refer to as Paradise Col, knowing that I’d never again be able to replicate the feelings that permeated through my adrenaline laden torso.
I’m often asked which of the Hyakumeizan is my favorite. I often prefer to answer in reference to experiences rather than specific mountains, for that’s what we tend to retain in our memory the longest. The remainder of my slog back to the parking lot is, in all honesty, a bit of a blur, but unfortunately I do remember the unfriendly hut staff who refused to give me a ride back to the station even though they knew the bus had stopped running for the season. Not wanting to end the trip on a low note, I marched on down the forest road for a few kilometers, flagging down a ride from a forest service truck on their way back into town. I further showed my disgust in front of the station by scowling at the same hut staff who’d earlier left me for dead. Instead of a confrontation, I merely stood at the edge of the busy street, thumb outstretched, and hitched all the way to Nagoya. Actions truly speak louder than words at times.