With a new Japan travel series starting this week, Joanna Lumley talks about girl bands, red cranes, visiting Fukushima nuclear power plant and the upcoming Tokyo Olympics
Has your journey through Japan had a lasting impact on you?
Yes, huge. It comes back to me all the time. It was all so unexpected. I’d been to Japan before, shooting in Tokyo for a programme I did on cats, but I hadn't really understood Japan. I could recognise its shape on a map but I knew nothing really about it. This trip was a real eye-opener.
How long were you on the road for?
Six weeks. We broke it into two chunks. We wanted to do Hokkaido, the very north island, in the peak snow because it has the most magnificent powder snow and this immense winter season, when they have the Sapporo Snow Festival and all these ice buildings, and also the great red crested cranes dancing in the icy rivers. Then we went back again to catch the cherry blossom in Kyoto. It’s as bright as day in my mind.
Did people know who you were in Japan?
No, not at all. In cities, people always know who you are because they’ve travelled a lot and get more international television but Japan is principally Japanese. I don't think Ab Fab was translated into Japanese; I don't think it would have worked and I don't think they would necessarily have liked it. One or two people had seen The Wolf of Wall Street, which I was in, funnily enough, but it is always lovely travelling in a country where they don't know you.
Was it good to be more anonymous?
It was fabulous.
In the first episode, you see the rare red cranes in Hokkaido. What was that like?
My heart was beating so much. With all wild animals you have been hoping to see, you think, “Will we see one today?” and the same with the red cranes. It was sensational - the light came up and there they were preening, calling and dancing with each other. We were unbelievably lucky. It was thrilling. The birds themselves are beyond fabulous. To see a whole mass of them was just magic.
On the flipside, you weren't so lucky when you visited Mount Fuji and it was covered in mist.
It was terribly funny going there. Just like a thousand million people in the world who have gone to see something and it isn't there, to get to Fuji and see nothing at all of it was very funny.
You went to a performance of a girl band where most of the audience were men in suits. Was that odd?
If it was in another part of the world, you might think it was creepy because a lot of them were middle-aged businessmen and on the stage were these 18 girls dressed as young teenagers, almost like school girls, doing these lovely lively dances. But there was something non-creepy about it.
It was good fun. It had a feeling of line dancing - all the chaps knew all the words and gestures the girls made. It’s a cross between an exercise class and a teenage disco but it didn't have a voyeuristic feel to it. The men adored the girls like goddesses. They spoke to the girls with such deference, like they were star struck. It was completely sex-free dancing, something men could do without looking foolish.
Do you think you could live in Tokyo?
You’d love to be given an assignment that took you there for a few months to get under the skin of the city and get to know it. The transport is second to none, if you can find your way around. But I don't think I could live there. It is really full-on. I adored Nagasaki because you can see mountains all around you and that's lovely. Tokyo is unbelievably huge, with 38 million people. Nevertheless it has quite a villagey feel about it, with temples everywhere.
The spotlight will be on Japan when the Olympics are in Tokyo 2020.
I hope they will do them brilliantly. There is no doubt they will. I hope people will break away and see the rest of the country and its 4,000 islands. I just hope people will think, “What else is out there?”
Did you enjoy your sake tasting?
It was amazing to see an old factory making sake just the way they used to. We didn't manage to bring much back to England as we managed to absorb it on the trip. Rice wine is such a beautiful thing. I always drank sake with my meals. Like everywhere in the world, they keep the best for themselves.
You also went into the nuclear exclusion zone set up after the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in 2011. Were you scared to go in?
No, but we were warned. The part we went into, you are only allowed to spend five hours there. I knew it was safe as they wouldn't let us in otherwise but to take the Geiger counter and measure the amount of radiation remaining five years after the incident, you think, “Gosh, it is still here and clinging to everything.”
To see everything as it was left… Everything had been abandoned. People let their dogs and cats behind, as they were told they could come back in a couple of days but they didn't. I met a dear man who worried about all these creatures and he went out and whistled and all the dogs locked up inside starving started barking. He made it his duty to feed them all. It was extraordinary.
When we came out of the zone we were okay. We weren't radiated. We took care. We washed outer garments which we took off.
There was an odd dead feeling there, I can understand why Japanese people didn't want to go back, just in case. They didn't want their babies to be born deformed or develop cancer. The brave man who stayed was so riddled with radiation that they couldn't believe he was alive but there he was, alive.
You went on a pilgrimage while you were in Japan. Are you quite a spiritual person?
I’ve never gone on a pilgrimage. I’m always interested in the world’s religions because they have such a hold over how we behave and how we think of ourselves in relation to other people. “Is our religion or culture better than yours?” I think this is where a lot of the strife in the world has come from. We are tribal. But I am interested in the Buddhist faith, which is absolutely non-aggressive. It is just about finding a spirituality in yourself. The temples in Japan are beyond beautiful.
The Peace Park on Okinawa – the first part of Japan invaded by the Americans in World War II - moved you to tears. Has that experience stayed with you?
It has haunted me. It was one of the most ghastly things which brought into my life what war is: boys who considered themselves to have failed, because their country has been invaded, so they blow themselves up. To think that any one of our boys or teenagers would have the shame to blow themselves up out of a sense of having failed their country, it broke my heart. I know we were at war with Japan and I understand all that but there was something about seeing all the names of the dead so gracefully honoured, I just thought, “We need to stop all war.” Japan was all about peace.
You also met some older Japanese ladies who had an average age of 84. Did you learn anything from them?
They take each day as it comes. They try to be optimistic. They mix with each other. They never sit at home alone. They dance, which means they keep fit. They keep their houses spotlessly clean. They eat well .They try to say, “Isn't today great?” and “Let's live life,” and that I thought was wonderful.
How different was this trip from your previous travel series Girl Friday in 1994, where you were stranded on a desert island?
In Girl Friday, I was living like an animal on my own, surviving on a handful of rice. This was quite different: visiting a massively different country from one I thought had an idea about, but I hadn't the foggiest about. This time I was travelling by car and ferry and meeting people, which I didn't do in Girl Friday because there wasn't anyone there. That is my passion in the world. I like finding out how alike we all are. That is my motive in life, to cross the world to meet different people. At their heart, most people want peace, to eat well, to be educated and to be happy.
Would you like to do more trips?
You would have to tie me to a tree to stop me travelling. I don't know where to go next. As I get older and travel more, the world seems to open up to me, beckoning me and whispering in my ear saying ‘Go’.
Joanna Lumley’s Japan, a new three-part series, starts on ITV on Friday Sept 9 at 9pm.
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