Joanna Lumley tells TV Times about her a life-changing trip to the land of dancing cranes


Joanna 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...

Joanna Lumley has, so far, searched for the Northern Lights in Norway (2008) for BBC1, 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 6000 miles across Asia and Europe on the Trans-Siberian Express (2015). Here she is talking about her latest adventure...

What’s it like seeing and experiencing all these different places?

"When you see such familiar, famous and thrilling things with your own eyes that is really something. But 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."

What attracted you to Japan?

"I've been to Japan before when I did ITV documentary Catwoman in 2009. I was there for five days, and it gave me a glimpse into this country. We all know bits of it – like sushi, Toshiba, Hello Kitty and Tamagotchi – and we drive Nissans. But when we got there, I literally fell backwards into the snow because I didn’t know there were 6000-odd islands. I thought, I really don't know Japan at all, and this was a chance to try to get behind that most mysterious country."

Was there anything in particular that you want to see in Japan?

"I've longed all my life to see the dancing cranes. I never dreamt I would – it was like going to see a unicorn! There are so few left and they're only found in a certain part of Hokkaido.

I thought we'll be lucky if we glimpse a couple. So seeing lots of them standing in the frozen river and dancing for each other for no reason – there was just 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."

What was it like trying to make sake?

"The heat in that room where we were supposed to be just rolling these great balls of rice around – I was sweltering in there! The wine was one of the finest and loveliest I’ve tasted. I’d be an old sake addict if I worked there!"

How was it visiting Honshu’s east coast, where the earthquake and tsunami struck?

"I knew they wouldn't let us enter if it really wasn't safe. There were three zones – red, amber and green. We were in the amber zone, meaning we could only stay there for five hours otherwise they felt you could become contaminated. Somebody told me that radioactivity clings to plants more than anything else, and putting my electronic measure next to some, it started beeping very fast and I thought: 'Help, it is still around.'"

Do you ever feel homesick?

"Not really, but I think that's because I won't phone my husband [conductor Stephen Barlow]. 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 are talking. Also, if you’re talking to somebody at home, they’ll always say: 'Do you remember where the stopcock is to the something?' and you’re snatched away from the slopes of Mount Fuji!"

Did you pick up any souvenirs while travelling around Japan?

"In Japan you just want to buy everything because it's all wrapped and presented so beautifully! One of my happiest things is a ring I bought in Hokkaido. It's a gold jewelled bear's head with diamonds all over and little sapphire eyes. Now, it cost three dollars because it was made of tin and covered in glass. But I wore it here to a grand ball, next to my real Cartier diamond ring with a little sapphire, and I won’t say which one but one of the heads of a Bond Street jewellers said: 'Joanna, ring?' I replied him: 'Do you like it? Three dollars, Japan.' He said: 'You’ve got me there!'

"So that comes out on special occasions! They do everything beautifully over there – as you can tell, I became bewitched by Japan."