Ab Fab star Joanna Lumley takes us on a tour of Japan

by Fiona Rae / 23 June, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Joanna Lumley Japan

Joanna Lumley’s Japan, Sunday.

There’s much more to our Pacific partner Japan than its sushi and Toyotas, as Joanna Lumley finds.

Joanna Lumley, it has to be said, looks good in fur. Fake fur, of course, which she needs for the frozen first stop on Joanna Lumley’s Japan (Prime, Sunday, 7.30pm).

She begins the three-part series in the north of Hokkaido, the least-populated of Japan’s three main islands. It’s the middle of winter and there is drift ice in the sea and heavy snow on the land: perfect conditions for viewing the rare red-crowned cranes that gather in a river before the rising sun.

It’s a 4am start, however, but worth it. “Of course, I wouldn’t get out of bed at this hour for anything less than a thousand cranes,” she jokes, before declaring the birds, as they mass in the sunlight and mist, “utterly beautiful” and, yes, “fabulous”.

As always, she is the most charming travel companion, with her excitement genuine and infectious rather than annoying. It was a real journey of discovery, she told the NZ Herald: “We all know Japanese words, we know how to say sayonara and order sushi and buy Toyota cars and so on, but I realised we don’t know much about Japan itself.”

The series, in which she will travel from Hokkaido in the north to Okinawa in the south, “began like a fairy story, actually, and we were just dazzled. It was incredibly beautiful, courteous and thrilling.”

In Hokkaido, she also makes a trip to Sapporo, “of course”, to see the ice festival that doubles the city’s population to four million every year. This year, Japanese Self-Defence Forces soldiers have built a replica of St Paul’s Church in Macau, China. It’s rather extraordinary, especially with a lightshow.

“It’s very wonderful to think of soldiers building snow castles,” says Lumley. “In an old hippie dream, you’d think that’s what the world would be like.”

In Sapporo, she meets descendants of the Ainu people, whose language and culture were banned and who were only recognised as the indigenous people of Hokkaido in 2008. Sapporo is an Ainu word.

On the main island of Honshu, there’s a visit to a 327-year-old sake brewery, where there is kneading of rice and sampling. There’s not as much sake being made in Japan any more, a shame because “sake is delicious!”

Lumley tramps to the amazing five-storey, 700-year-old Shinto pagoda on Mt Haguro, meets the only resident of the 19km exclusion zone around the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant and visits hot springs frequented by macaques. Next week: cherry blossom season in Tokyo. Ab fab.

This article was first published in the June 23, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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