Joanna Lumley on Japan: “I wanted to try to get behind this most mysterious country”

When the actress came back from Japan, we asked her about the highlights - from dancing birds to a cathedral of ice

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We all know about sushi and sashimi, we all know what a tsunami is, we know Hello Kitty! and Tamagotchi, we drive Nissan cars… But when I got to Japan to film my new series, I fell backwards into the snow, and it was like in the Joni Mitchell song, “I really don’t know clouds at all”. I realised I really don’t know Japan at all, so I wanted to try to get behind this most mysterious country.

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Dancing birds

One thing I had longed all my life to see were the dancing cranes in Hokkaido, the second largest of Japan’s islands, in the north. It was like going to see a unicorn. They’re only to be found in Hokkaido, and there are so few of them left, that even on this trip I thought we’d be lucky if we glimpsed a couple. We were up so early in the morning to see them standing in the frozen river.  The fact that they mate for life and just dance for each other for no reason – there’s something supernatural about it. It was like seeing the northern lights…

Walking in the snow

There’s something so charming about people just being out in the snow. In Sapporo, during the annual snow festival, all everyone really did was walk around looking at beautiful snow sculptures. There were lots of food stalls and a blizzard of snow falling down as you walked around, with the lights flickering and crowds of people skidding on the ground, and you knew that in three or four days’ time it would be gone, as if it had never existed. There was a cathedral made of ice, built by the army, which I found touching. The brilliance and skill of the handiwork was unbelievably beautiful.

Cherry blossom time

We timed our schedule so that we would hit Kyoto at cherry blossom time. They announce it with the weather forecast. Maps show where the flowers are out; symbols show “cherry blossom in bud” so that you know when your blossom’s going to open, or where to go so you can have a picnic with your family under fully open trees. The long avenues of immense trees in blossom are a natural wonder.

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Kamo River, Kyoto

I love seeing extraordinary things on these trips, but what I love most is meeting unusual people, and getting into their homes and lives. Even if I went to Japan as a tourist, how would I ever get to sit in on Buddhist services and talk with young monks?

Or meet the Ainu people, the original people of Hokkaido, who were pushed out of their homeland, rather like the native Americans or the Aboriginal people, and were reduced to the status of second-class citizens. To meet an old man, still weeping because he insulted his grandmother many years ago by saying, “Silly Granny, you can’t pronounce my new Japanese name.” How would that ever happen in real life?

As told to Sarah Carson. This article was first published in November 2016. Joanna Lumley’s Japan is repeated on 11 June, ITV3, 9pm

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