Joanna Lumley's absolutely fabulous Japanese adventure

The British actress with deep Kiwi roots. Joanna Lumley visits Japan for a new three-part travel series.

The British actress with deep Kiwi roots. Joanna Lumley visits Japan for a new three-part travel series.

It is little wonder that Joanna Lumley has itchy feet.

The Absolutely Fabulous star might have a cut-glass English accent but she is a real citizen of the world. Born in India, she travelled extensively as a child and is even, it appears, a little bit Kiwi.

"My maternal grandmother was born in Christchurch so I've got links to New Zealand," Lumley reveals. 

Joanna Lumley's journey around Japan was a steep learning curve.

Joanna Lumley's journey around Japan was a steep learning curve.

"Her father was Danish and travelled all the way from Denmark to set up a life in New Zealand and married Hannah Arkles, who was British but had gone there earlier. Arkles Bay (on the Whangaparaoa peninsula) is named after them so I've got New Zealand roots up to my armpits. I love it." 

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With such globe-trotting ancestors, it's little wonder Lumley, 71, says she almost panics if she has to stay in one country for too long.

"I think people were born to travel. I think we were all nomadic long, long ago and it's in our genes which is why the idea of a holiday or a bit of travel always makes me so excited," she says, adding her home is full of reminders of family trips.

"I keep old suitcases stacked up in every room. I use them as filing cabinets and put things in them – but there they sit, bearing labels from when my grandparents were up in Tibet. 

"Others are from my parents, with labels like 'Not Wanted On Voyage' – things that were put in the ship's hold when we travelled to and fro across the world on the troop ships. I just love the notion of travelling."

A much newer addition is the staff she carried on a pilgrimage she made while filming Joanna Lumley's Japan, the three-part series that debuts on the Living Channel this week.

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Her journey begins in the sub-zero temperatures of Hokkaido, home to some of Japan's most beautiful and endangered wild animals. 

From there, she winds her way south, visiting the sprawl of Tokyo, the ancient capital of Kyoto with its stunning temples and the city of Nagasaki with its tragic past. Her epic journey comes to an end on the idyllic beaches of Kohama, one of Japan's most remote Pacific islands.

It was, says Lumley, a steep learning curve for her. 

"Japan was a place I knew of vaguely in that you know all kinds of very famous things about it like Toyota cars, sushi and Mt Fuji," she admits. "Once I got there I was first of all struck by the incredible beauty of those islands, the fact that there are 4000 Japanese islands of which 400 are inhabited ... and I began to go, 'Oh my gosh, I know nothing about this country at all'. 

"We decided to go from the very top to the very bottom, just for no reason other than it was a journey to make starting in snow and ending up on a kind of Pacific beach."

Along the way, she takes obvious delight in the people she meets – a trainee geisha with a love of Harry Potter is overwhelmed to discover Lumley has met Daniel Radcliffe. However, few, if any, Japanese people have heard of Patsy Stone, the comedy character who made her a household name in the West.

Absolutely Fabulous would not work in Japan, Lumley says.

"All the points of reference would be completely alien to the Japanese. I think the fact I was in a Bond film (On Her Majesty's Secret Service) was impressive to people maybe in cities but I didn't go round saying, 'Did you see me in...?' That's of no interest to me."

That said, Lumley does have an intense curiosity and did not let the fact she doesn't speak Japanese stop her from interacting with the Japanese people. 

Whether it is as one of the few women in a crowd of Japanese businessmen at a girl band concert or a tour of the nuclear exclusion zone set up after the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in 2011, Lumley is engrossed and hopes viewers will be too.

"People love learning about the world," she says. "People stop me when I'm queuing in the supermarket and go, 'Oh we never knew that about such and such'. And lots of people say, 'We've booked tickets, we're going to go there'. And Japan, I think, had a surge in British bookings to go over there which is thrilling."

Joanna Lumley's Japan, Living Channel, starts Sunday October 15.

 - TV Guide

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