‘I’m bewitched by Japan’
Joanna Lumley tells TV Times about her life-changing trip to the land of dancing cranes, 6,800 islands and endless surprises
oanna Lumley’s the first to admit how lucky she’s been to explore so many of the world’s wondrous places since she began her successful sideline in TV travelogues eight years ago.
So far, she’s searched for the Northern Lights in Norway for BBC1 (2008) and, for ITV, completed an epic journey along the River Nile (2010), unearthed Greece’s hidden treasures (2011), tried to uncover the truth about Noah’s Ark in Turkey, India and Oman (2012), and travelled 6,000 miles across Asia and Europe on the Trans-siberian Express (2015).
‘When you see such familiar, famous and thrilling things with your own eyes, that’s really something,’ smiles Joanna, 70, as she chats to TV Times.
‘However, what I love most about these trips is meeting unusual people. The greatest joy is getting off the beaten track and into people’s homes, seeing how they live and eating the food they cook at home – lovely.’
This week, Joanna gets to do just that again as she jets off to Japan for a new three-part series, to explore the most uncharted corners of the country’s 6,800 mystical islands. In most of her previous adventures she had a personal connection to the place she was visiting, but this series is born purely out of her curiosity to learn more about Japanese geography, history and culture.
‘I’ve been to Japan before when
JI did an ITV documentary called Catwoman in 2009,’ she recalls. ‘I was there for five days and it gave me a glimpse into the country.
‘When we got there this time, though, I literally fell backwards because I didn’t know there were 6,000-odd islands. I thought, I really don’t know Japan at all.’
Joanna explores four main islands, starting in the far north with snow-covered Hokkaido. With vast national parks, it’s a haven for endangered species, including the red-crowned crane. Seeing this beautiful bird – renowned for rhythmic movement that resembles dancing – was the highlight of her trip.
‘I’ve longed all my life to see the dancing cranes,’ she says. ‘I never dreamt I would – it was like going to see a unicorn!
‘Seeing lots of them standing in the frozen river and dancing for each other for no reason – there was something supernatural about it. It was rather like when I saw the Northern Lights, you get a glimpse into a world that isn’t our world at all, it operates completely separately and is sublime.’
After Hokkaido, Joanna headed south to Honshu – the largest and most populated island – to try her hand at making the national drink, saké. Made from fermented rice and water, it tastes like wine, but is much stronger.
‘The heat in that room where we were rolling these great balls of rice around – I was sweltering!’ she laughs. ‘The wine was one of the finest and loveliest I’ve tasted. I’d be an addict if I worked there.’
On a sadder note, episode one also sees Joanna visit Honshu’s east coast, which was devastated by a huge earthquake and tsunami in 2011, killing more than 20,000 people. It also caused a nuclear power plant to go into meltdown and nearby residents had to flee from radiation.
There’s still an exclusion zone around the plant, but Joanna meets the one man who refused to leave, devoting his life to looking after abandoned animals.
‘I knew they wouldn’t let us enter if it really wasn’t safe,’ says Joanna. ‘There were three zones – red, amber and green. We were in amber, meaning we could only stay there for five hours, otherwise they feared contamination.’
The next two episodes will see Joanna continue wending her way south, with pit stops in Tokyo, the ancient capital of Kyoto, and the volcanic Kyushu island, before finishing up on one of the smallest and most remote islands, Kohama.
Joanna filmed the series over two separate visits, each lasting three weeks. She’s obviously a seasoned traveller, but does she ever get homesick?
‘Not really, but I think that’s because I won’t phone my husband [conductor Stephen Barlow],’ she reveals. ‘Voices make you start sobbing, but emails are very good as they make you sit down and describe the day or the event with much more care than if you’re talking. Also, if you’re speaking to somebody at home, they’ll always say, “Do you remember where the stopcock is?” and you’re immediately snatched away from the slopes of Mount Fuji!’
We’ve had the pleasure of interviewing the always absolutely fabulous Joanna about each of her far-flung adventures, so we know she always likes to pick up a souvenir or two. Any fantastic finds this time? ‘In Japan you just want to buy everything because it’s all wrapped and presented so beautifully!’ she laughs. ‘One of my best buys was a ring from Hokkaido. It looks like a gold bear’s head with diamonds all over and sapphire eyes, but it cost three dollars because it was made of tin and covered in glass.
‘I wore it to a grand ball, next to my real Cartier diamond ring, and it was admired by one of the bosses of a Bond Street jewellers – I won’t say which one!
‘So the bear ring comes out on special occasions. They do everything beautifully over there. As you can tell, I became bewitched
is previewed on pages 82-83
Under my umbrella... Joanna poses with a traditional parasol Joanna (back row) meets some of the sprightly OAPS Japan is famous for...
...and encounters macaques, also known as snow monkeys... ...before rooting out the proud grower of a giant vegetable
I literally fell backwards because I didn’t know there were 6,000odd islands. I thought, I really don’t know Japan at all
Kimono to my place... with a geisha girl in full costume
Shall we dance? Two red-crowned cranes show off their moves