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.
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.
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
You might also like: Travel like a local – Tokyo, Kyoto and Japan’s Jurassic Park
Radio Times Travel offer:
Land of the Rising Sun Tour, 13 days from £2,999pp
- See the famous sights of Tokyo – the Meiji shrine, Omotesando Street, fashion-setting Harajuku and the Akihabara electronic town
- Visit the stunning Nikko National Park, with its outstanding Shogun-era architecture and a UNESCO World Heritage site
- Take a scenic boat trip from Tokyo’s traditional Asakusa district to the luxury shops of Ginza
- Enjoy astonishing views of Mt. Fuji from Lake Kawaguchi and the hot-spring mountain spa resort of Hakone
- See the volcanic Owakudani ‘Boiling Valley’ by aerial gondola
- Travel at 189 mph on the incomparable bullet trains Reflect on the horrors of war at Hiroshima’s Peace Park and museum
- Experience the spectacular 300-foot Kegon Falls and Lake Chuzenji, stunning examples of Japan’s world-renowned natural beauty
- Tour Kyoto, former Imperial capital and essence of traditional Japan with wooden houses, geishas, stunning temples and Zen gardens
- Guided tour of Nara, Japan’s first capital with its huge bronze Buddha
- Opportunity to stay the night in a ‘Ryokan’, a traditional Japanese Inn
- Opportunity to learn origami, traditional flower arranging or Japanese cooking
Click here for the full itinerary and to book