JET LAG is a funny thing. It plays tricks on the mind. For instance, right now I could swear that I’m crammed into a tiny karaoke room on an upper floor of a building somewhere in Tokyo. The narrow table is covered end to end with empty bottles of Asahi beer and Zima, jugs of whiskey and vodka, buckets of ice, huge clear-plastic bags of luridly colored Japanese candy. There are about ten of us in here, packed thigh to thigh on the U-shaped banquette, under a ceiling of peeling geometrically patterned wallpaper that seems to strobe in the fluorescent light. That’s not including the trio of waitresses in tiny fur-trimmed Mrs. Santa Claus dresses, peering in curiously from the door. All this is more or less plausible. The strange part is what we’re all staring at, to all appearances a surrealist pop-culture mash-up, bizarre even by the standards of a country known for bizarreness: the comedian and actor Aziz Ansari (of Parks and Recreation), the musician James Murphy (of LCD Soundsystem), and the chef David Chang (of Momofuku), in suits, arm in arm, belting out A-Ha’s “Take On Me.”
But that can’t be right. I mean, who drinks Zima?
It began with a photo: three men, snapped from the waist up. On the left, Chang, rosy cheeked and grinning. On the right, Murphy, gray bearded and Zen, raising one hand in a gesture of mahalo. Between them, a head shorter, with one arm on each of the others’ shoulders, Ansari, mouth and eyes wide open in his trademark “Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?” gape. The three were at The Breslin, at New York’s Ace Hotel, for the afterparty of an Arcade Fire show; none were especially sober. Ansari tweeted the photo with a message: “David Chang, @lcdsoundsystem, and myself want to go to Tokyo and eat food. Can some magazine/Travel Channel pay.”
To be clear: We are not accustomed, here at GQ, to acting as a celebrity Make-A-Wish Foundation. But something about this tweet captured our attention. The grouping was unlikely, yet it made an instant kind of cosmic sense, as though you had been waiting for the picture long before it appeared. The Venn diagram of their fame might have a small overlap—I found that most people knew two of the three—but that intersection was a particular pocket of smart, inventive, forward-looking cool. The destination, too, made a certain intuitive sense, Tokyo being both a fun-house mirror of pop-culture iconography and a place where generations of Western seekers have gone to feel both reverently awed and gloriously disoriented.
And so, a week before Christmas, I found Chang in a business-class lounge at JFK. He informed me that for our upcoming flight to Narita, where we would meet up with Ansari and Murphy, he’d just downed a cocktail of pills, timed to kick in upon takeoff. “I just hope we’re not delayed,” he said, “or you’re gonna have to carry me to the plane.”
That was not half as frightening as the next thing he told me, which was that he was afraid: Ansari, not yet 30, is a coiled wire of comedic energy and late-night stamina; Murphy may be 40, but he’s also a rock star, with a rock star’s ability to go till dawn. Chang was not sure he could hang. This was worrisome, because Chang is a chef, not a profession known for teetotaling. Later he would tell me matter-of-factly that his preferred cure for a really bad hangover was to check into the nearest emergency room for intravenous rehydration. If Chang was concerned about what was to come, I was terrified.
In varying states of bleariness—Ansari had arrived from Los Angeles, Murphy from Shanghai—we converged fourteen hours later in the vaulted lobby of the Cerulean Tower Tokyu Hotel, a sleek monolith with whisper-soft elevators hurtling forty stories up, toward vertiginous views of the surrounding neighborhood of Shibuya. By name and appearance, the place belonged in Lando Calrissian’s Cloud City.
We trundled into a taxi, handed the white-gloved driver a paper scrawled with indecipherable directions by our concierge, and went shooting down a long neon-lit avenue toward Setagaya Ward. Even if you’re accustomed to a big city like New York, it’s hard not to get overwhelmed by Tokyo’s mile after mile of intensely vertical density. It’s a sprawl of Times Squares, punctuated by multiple city centers—Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ginza. Every room in the city feels like an adaptation to that crushing crowdedness, an attempt to carve out spaces that are either tiny and nichelike, hidden out of sight, or exclusive in more traditional ways—like our destination that night, a members-only dining club, Yakumo Saryo.
We turned into a hilly neighborhood of smaller shops and houses. Several blocks later, a waiter in a flowing white apron suddenly appeared, apparitionlike, in the headlights. He waved the car over, and we followed him down the street and through a gate marked only with a hanging flag bearing a symbol that looked like a cross between a crab and an inverted fleur-de-lis.
Inside we were ushered into a rectangular room seemingly constructed entirely from perfectly sanded, unfinished blond wood—a space where Basho and whoever founded Ikea might get lost in each other’s eyes. A silent chef labored over small, precise dishes in the style of the traditional, elaborate Japanese tea ceremony, or kaiseki. Each arrived at the table accompanied by an explanatory piece of rice paper the size of a fortune-cookie fortune.
I looked around the table. Ansari’s passion for food had been the force that brought this triumvirate together. When confronted with an especially delicious bite of something, he would go into sensory-deprivation mode, bowing his head, closing his eyes, and folding his arms inward as though shutting down, the better to focus on the taste. Sometimes he would even start to shake a little.
Murphy and Chang knew each other only slightly. But both had found themselves, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, responsible for large, sprawling businesses—Chang the ever expanding empire of Momofuku restaurants, which have been at the vanguard of casual/fine dining in New York, Murphy both the perpetually touring LCD Soundsystem and his independent label, DFA Records. Both wore their more obsessive, perfectionist neuroses on their sleeves, though Murphy projected the hard-won calm of a handsome, aging Irish barfly, while Chang, a decade younger, could seem as tightly wound as a taiko drum. Their kinship on this trip seemed instant.
“My dad would say like two things a year to me, and they’d be mean,” said Murphy as we tucked into a delicate handkerchief of raw sea bream.
“That was very Korean of him,” said Chang.
Our mission, we decided over lumps of red and green tea-flavored mochi ice cream that resembled unfired balls of clay, was to seek out those moments in which Japan manages, in its sublime Japaneseness, to exceed even one’s most exaggerated expectations. Before dinner was over, I’d already had two: (1) We’d eaten something truly transcendent: a Kyoto daikon, beveled and lathed into a shape like a piece of smooth industrial machinery, simmered in seaweed broth until achieving the uniform texture of custard and served in a simple white bowl atop a clear pool of bonito dashi. And (2) I’d been momentarily startled by the mouth of the men’s-room toilet swinging open to greet me, in what I believe was a gesture of goodwill rather than menace. Everything you’ve heard about Japanese toilets is true: I did not have time to push every button on this commode’s war-room-size operations panel, but I’m pretty sure one activated a mechanical arm that would reach up and gently palpate your bladder while playing soft, cooing lullabies. From then on, I would have a new shorthand to describe the kind of experience we were after: “Toilet Moments.”
We were standing on the sidewalk, blinking in the winter sun, heatedly debating where to eat lunch. Deciding on ramen hardly settled the matter, ramen taxonomy—chicken versus pork broth, miso versus soy-sauce base, and so on—being one of the more serious matters to occupy Japanophiles. Years before, Chang had spent a not-very-happy, mostly penurious nine months working in Tokyo and slurping widely in noodle shops around town. Now he proposed a small chain called Ramen Jiro.
“What style is it?” Murphy asked.
“It’s its own thing,” Chang said. “It’s gnarly.”
“Can you be more specific?”
The morning’s shopping expedition may have contributed to our crankiness. We’d originally contacted the company N. Hoolywood about procuring matching suits for all of us. As its name would indicate, N. Hoolywood, and head designer Daisuke Obana, is intent on taking weird fragments of American culture and refracting them back, transformed into something just slightly off and utterly Japanese. Past collections had been inspired by such sources as Detroit auto workers, 1940s gangster mug shots, and a collection of Yosemite photos by Ansel Adams. One would cry Zoolander, if arriving in Tokyo didn’t mean surrendering one’s notion of the border between parody and reality at the airport.
It took us a half hour to find N. Hooly-wood’s main showroom, in a nearly unmarked house a block or two off of the shopping boulevard known as Omotesando Dori. Once we were inside, the staff had embarrassedly explained that while they could accommodate Ansari’s Japanese-size frame, there was nothing in their sample wardrobes, perhaps in the entire city, that could fit the rest of our grotesquely elongated and bloated bodies. So we hung around, and watched Ansari bounce around in taunting, giddy bliss, tended to personally by Obana himself. At one point, the two disappeared upstairs to a storage area, and we could hear them laughing hysterically. Following the sound, we discovered Ansari clowning with a mannequin he’d found in a corner: white skinned, naked, potbellied, and sexless as a Ken doll. I had the uncomfortable suspicion that it was meant to represent what the rest of us looked like with our clothes off.
Finally, lunch: The nearest Jiro was staffed by unsmiling men who lifted their eyes only to glare at our party. Every seat was taken, but the place was silent except for the sound of slurping. We shuffled in line toward a machine that dispensed the tickets you handed to the chefs. There was a bewildering array of choices. Ansari, clad in his new brown suit, was the first to reach the front. “I’m scared,” he whispered. “Just close your eyes and push a button,” said Chang.
Eventually we were all seated in front of steaming bowls of thick, almost gravylike broth. Pieces of cabbage and ragged chunks of pork protruded here and there, like half-submerged bog creatures. The taste bore the looks out—deep, swampy, and warming to the core. After one sip, we all straightened and looked at each other, goofy smiles slippery with grease.
The meal demanded a nap. Then it was off to Bar High Five, owned by Hidetsugu Ueno, who has become the foremost ambassador of the Japanese cocktail movement. Stepping into the closet-sized space on the fourth floor of a building in Ginza, the ritzy shopping district, was like arriving on an advanced planet whose sole sacred text was a 1960s American bar manual—like stepping at once back and forward in time. Ueno wore a magnificent pompadour and worked from strange bottles of the kind you see gathering dust under American bars—sloe gin and blended whiskeys and odd liqueurs. His technique was astonishing: When he poured, it was in a thin stream from high above the golden wood bar, somehow perfectly filling each glass to just its meniscus point.
“Well, he does do this every day,” Ansari reasoned.
“I pee every day,” said Chang. “But sometimes I miss.”
As we drank in reverent silence, I could see Murphy blinking hard and sweating. The gnarliness of the ramen, it seemed, was wreaking gnarly havoc on his insides. With apologies, he dashed back to the hotel.
In retrospect, this may have been a canny strategic bailout in the face of the cultural awkwardness on which we were about to embark. At one point, while brainstorming which Toilet Moments we’d seek out, Chang had offhandedly said, “Find Mrs. Chang.” Since we were in the wish-granting business, it seemed obvious what to do: Organize a gokon.
I will not pretend, even after having been through one, to fully understand what a gokon is. It had been explained to us as a ritualized group blind date—usually organized by a couple either hesitant to have a first date on their own or worried about their bachelor and bachelorette friends. Each brings an even number of men and women to meet and talk. Whether the expectation was to facilitate hookups, long-term relationships, or just pleasant company was left unclear.
We arrived early at Tachimichiya—a basement izakaya, or beer hall, decorated with punk-rock posters—in the neighborhood of Daikanyama. In preparation for small talk, I’d downloaded a conversational-Japanese app to my iPhone, though it seemed to specialize solely in phrases along the lines of “I like to paint and sketch” and “Do you like pizza?” We were awaiting the arrival of Tatsuya Mizuno, a journalist and apparent expert in arranging gokons. Where exactly that put him on the continuum between popular and pimp I could not quite pinpoint.
The door flew open and in walked Mizuno, followed by four women around 40, all in low-cut but otherwise demure dresses. At almost precisely the same moment, it dawned on the three of us that this was going to be as excruciating as any other blind date.
“I need to get drunk. Fast,” said Chang, reaching for a bottle of soju.
Mizuno ushered the ladies over. He wore a Vandyke and a brown leather blazer. His voice sounded like it was being dragged out through five feet of gravel, a low, drawn-out growl that lent even his most innocent sentences a leering dirtiness. I nicknamed him the Goat.
“Thees is Haruka, Kyoko, Chie, and Yumiko,” he growled as the women expertly slid in among us. Kyoko and Chie squeezed close on either side of Chang, who was on his third drink in as many minutes. “Now you ask each other questions,” the Goat said, making it sound like something that might well end in pregnancy. Chang suddenly took an inordinate amount of interest in a Ramones poster on the wall behind him. He poured another drink.
“You are on television?” one of the girls asked Ansari. He allowed that he was.
“What program would I know about?”
“Have you seen Friends?”
“Yes!” all the girls said simultaneously.
“I played Chandler,” said Ansari. “Indian Chandler.”
The girls looked confused.
“Let’s not talk about TV. Let’s talk about movies,” one said.
“Have you seen Pretty Woman?” asked Ansari.
The table filled up with plates: piles of sashimi, crisscrossed Jenga stacks of yakitori. The drinks kept flowing.
On my left was Yumiko. She wore a green drapey dress and had long hair that framed her oval face. Had she been to many gokons? I asked. Oh, yes, she said. And what did she do for a living?
“I’m a Buddhist monk,” she said earnestly.
“Okay,” I said. She also had a boyfriend. Who was a mixed-martial-arts fighter.
“But he’s not a champion yet,” she said, pulling up a picture on her phone.
“Looks a little small to me,” I said.
“Oh yes,” she said, kindly. “He is only six feet two inches.”
Across the table, Haruka, the shyest of the group, peered up at Ansari through her bangs. “I am also an actress,” she said in a tentative voice.
“Really? What do you do?”
“I am a model.” She dug in her purse, came up with her phone, and showed him a picture. He stared at the phone for a moment and then passed it without comment to me and Chang. Sure enough, there was Haruka, several years younger, soaking wet, wearing a tiny, clinging tank top that barely covered her large breasts. She was looking at the camera with what could only be described as “gokon eyes.”
We were silent. The girls giggled.
“Do you like pizza?” Ansari said.
Around midnight the girls excused themselves, but the Goat led us on. Outside it was pouring, sheets of cold rain washing down the street. Chang wanted to go back to the hotel, but we forced him into a cab back to central Shibuya—a district known, in the cosmology of the city, as loud, bright, young, and Westernized. We got out near an elevated train track and entered a street of a totally different scale: Nonbei Yokocho, “Drunkard’s Alley,” a dark, narrow circular alley of tiny bars that sprang up during the postwar occupation. Through the windows, draped with Christmas lights, we could see dry and cozy groups of two and three people, leaning close and laughing, successfully keeping the crush of the city at bay. The Goat seemed to know everybody and picked up friends as we walked, until there were ten of us ducking into a bar the size of a bathroom. A small bathroom. In a dollhouse. In Lilliput.
Chang said he was going to pee. Too late, we realized he’d given us the slip. One of the three regulars, older men whose space we’d suddenly invaded, went scurrying into the night. Another stuck around to tell Ansari, at great, repetitive length, that while Chinese were no good, Indians were fine by him, because they are clever.
“Give these guys wheeeskey,” growled the Goat. “Cheeeep wheeeskey.”
Suddenly Chang was back, having either discovered a second wind or failed to find his way out of the mazelike alley.
“You are the coolest man in the world,” Chang told the Goat, clasping him around the shoulder. They did a shot of Jägermeister.
Rain streamed down outside the open door. Impossibly, more people pressed into the bar, forcing some in the back to climb on chairs and squash themselves close to the ceiling. Chang insisted on buying a round of vodka shots, which was the last thing we needed at 3 A.M. No was not an option. “Kanpai!” he yelled, as Ansari and I artfully poured our glasses out on the floor. Chang eyed us suspiciously.
Eventually we spilled, like clowns from a Volkswagen, out into the alley. I stopped to tie my shoe, and when I looked up, everybody was gone. Stumbling around a corner, I saw Chang disappearing into another shoebox-sized bar, but when I followed, it was empty except for a couple talking with the bartender. I stood in the doorway, swaying confusedly, until the bartender pointed at a tiny staircase. I squeezed up and emerged inside a music box designed by a demented gay Austrian prince. It was a room entirely upholstered and painted in bordello red. Every inch of wall and ceiling was covered with dripping ornamentation: taxidermied antelope heads and crystal chandeliers and glowing glass bunches of grapes and gilt-framed oil paintings of zebras and lions and sad clowns.
Ansari was slumped on one of the red leather banquettes. Chang was sitting next to him, holding out a glass of whiskey.
“Kanpai, motherfuckers,” he said.
Too early the next morning, I was seated next to Murphy, staring dully at the barista at a coffee shop the musician had discovered near the Cerulean. The man shuffled slowly back and forth between a Bunsen burner and a glass tube that seemed to have been lifted from a nuclear-physics lab, administering the coffee with what, at that moment, seemed like criminally excessive attention. Having rested while we had our adventures in gokon Land, the rock star was much refreshed. “God,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s amazing the care he takes. So cool.”
Coffee was just one of a seemingly encyclopedic collection of Murphy’s obsessions and areas of expertise. He was wearing a gray suit he’d had custom made in Shanghai. He showed off the breast pocket, which had overlapping pockets for an iPhone and regular cell phone. It was his own design. I kept waiting for my coffee.
Murphy seemed to know about most things Japanese. He’d first come here around 2000 as a sound mixer for the Beastie Boys. This was a time, he said, when he would routinely take Ecstasy and simply walk the streets in a state of intensity and rage, and Tokyo must have provided the perfect level of assaultive sensory overload. As he mellowed, the city had become a regular stop on LCD Soundsystem’s relentless tour schedule, the perfect place for a man with a fetish for perfection and an omnivorous appetite.
Drop by painstaking drop dripped the coffee. Murphy watched, transfixed. I made a note to always get coffee before going out for coffee with James Murphy.
It was a day of Toilet Moments and dazed wanderings and an incessant soundtrack of synthesized holiday music:
• through Kappabashi, the crowded kitchen-supply district where Chang, looking like a dog thrown into a room filled with tennis balls, filled his bag with knives and other gadgets to be given as holiday gifts to friends and staff.
• to a lunch of tonkatsu, fried pork cutlets the size and shape of Mini Cooper hubcaps; Ansari begged Chang to spit in his food, so that he could preserve an appetite for dinner.
• into a video arcade—a multilevel orgasmatron of strobing lights, wild beeping, and screaming, cheering anthropomorphic cartoons that made Chuck E. Cheese’s look like a Christian Science reading room. Upstairs was a floor filled with photo-sticker booths screaming CUTE! and PARTY! and LOVE GIRLYS! in a riotous palette of fuchsia, peach, and kittycat.
• and into a booth with a control panel that allowed you to touch up your photos before printing. You could instantly Westernize each pair of eyes. “Oh no. That is the worst,” said Murphy as Chang was transformed into a startled geisha, Ansari a cartoon gopher. Chang took the electronic pen and scrawled Team Roundeye, with a little pink heart.
It was a day that an essential truth about Tokyo became newly, exhaustingly clear: You may start out smugly amused and amazed, noticing all the ways in which it steals, cracks, and reassembles Western culture. But ultimately you come to realize it is not about you; it has no need for you; you will never understand it and it will roll on whether or not you’re there to appreciate it. For an American—perhaps most for those in the American spotlight—this is a strange, exhilarating, wonderful thing.
By the time we reached dinner that night, at Nihonryori Ryugin, the restaurant of the prodigiously talented young chef Seiji Yamamoto, it has to be said that we were running a little ragged. Before we’d left, I’d come across Chang and Ansari in the Cerulean lobby, both sprawled out dozing in padded leather armchairs. Now we shuffled into a long dark hallway with a desk at the end, behind which sat a dubious and severe young woman with hair in a swept-up bun. She looked us up and down, spoke into a Secret Service–style earpiece, then reluctantly ushered us into the hushed dining room.
When Yamamoto opened Ryugin, he served wildly inventive dishes like burdock roots carved to look like wine corks and plates decorated with bar codes painted in squid ink. (Scanned with a phone, they led to an explanatory web page.) Lately—rumor had it in response to disapproving pressure from the Japanese culinary establishment—he’d reined in the more fanciful flights of his imagination in favor of more subdued, classical fare. We were at Ryugin at Chang’s urging. Working in Tokyo as a young man had left him with mixed feelings about the city at best, but he worshiped the discipline Japanese chefs brought to cooking in all vernaculars, high and low, East and West. Someday, he predicted, as labor laws and dreams of easy stardom made Western cooks soft and slow, all classical technique would reside in Japan. “It’s going to be like the Library of Alexandria here,” he said as we sipped champagne and dug into an appetizer of soft, buttery monkfish liver painted with miso.
It was a quiet meal. The trip was winding down. So was the year. And our mood might have been a premonition of how momentous 2011 would turn out to be for all. Murphy had decided to fold LCD Soundsystem, feeling that the band had grown too large for him to have a full life. “It’s not good for me anymore,” he said. “I like being successful. But I never expected that success would mean only being able to do one thing.” The farewell concert he went on to stage at Madison Square Garden in April felt like the end of a particular era of New York underground life—perhaps the last such era—a measure of which was the mournful panic the announcement set off in Murphy’s fans; the concert sold out within minutes.
Chang, too, talked about escape, in his case to Australia, where he’d been spending time working on a Sydney branch of Momofuku. New York had grown frustrating: He couldn’t actually cook in his restaurants, because diners insisted on taking his picture. “I’ve got all these great kitchens now, but I can’t work in any of them,” he said. And yet plenty more was already brewing. That coming summer, Chang would launch a new food journal, Lucky Peach, along with a companion iPad app. He’d take on an improbable featured-acting role—as a heroic bohemian artist-chef—on HBO’s Treme. He’d attend a state dinner at the White House. He’d have morphed into an unlikely King of All Media.
As for Ansari, the third season of Parks and Recreation would debut and finally move from the safe corner of “beloved but unwatched” to the glare of mainstream expectation. By the end of the year, it would generally be considered one of the best comedies on TV. For what it’s worth, I myself was only a few weeks away from putting all my belongings in storage and boarding a train to live in New Orleans after nearly twenty years in New York.
In short, we were four men on the cusp of Further Complications, and for the first time it began to feel that this trip was more than the product of simple gluttony or a social-media accident. Strange times lay ahead, stranger even than the lurid landscape in which, paradoxically, we were finding a moment of suspended peace before the storm.
The final courses arrived, seeming to encapsulate both poles of Japanese culture. First, humble sublime simplicity: a bowl of rice tossed with rough cubes of Wagyu beef, the melted fat from the meat just barely slicking each perfectly al dente grain. Then, gleaming futuristic fireworks: In front of each of us, waiters placed a plate on which sat a tiny perfect shining apple, as though it had been lifted directly from Snow White. Chang figured it out first: “It’s not an apple,” he murmured. He took his spoon and cracked the top of what was actually a thin shell of sugar. Inside was a deep-frozen thimbleful of powdered-apple ice cream. It sent off a glistening little puff, like fairy dust. We all were suddenly grinning.
Then someone said, “We should go do karaoke.”
I’m told that Zima, that strange clear drink so ridiculed Stateside, is actually quite popular in Japan—so much so that when MillerCoors discontinued American production of the malt beverage in 2008, it continued to be sold in the Land of the Rising Sun. This does nothing to diminish the shock we all feel when the elevator doors open and we are presented with a maintenance man wheeling a huge trough of ice and clear bottles.
“Zima!” cries Chang, eyes gone wide. He falls upon the shocked janitor, pries the top off a bottle, and downs it. “Better than Four Loko,” he declares, perhaps the least helpful tasting note ever issued by a renowned chef.
Once we cram into the room, having picked up some of Murphy’s friends from previous trips along the way, the other guys show off their own special powers, like some kind of ninja superteam: Whap! Power of Hyperkinetic Comedian! Ansari climbs up on a banquette and goes bouncing around on the upholstery, performing both parts of B.o.B and Bruno Mars’s “Nothin’ on You.” Zing! Power of Lead Singer! Murphy dials up Lou Rawls’s “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” and launches in with a rich, rolling, buttery vocal that brings the room to a dead halt. The Mrs. Claus girls appear in the door as somebody dials up “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Ansari wanders into the room next door and sings the Backstreet Boys to the shocked party. Their group joins ours. Or maybe we end up in the hallway. More Zima. Candy spills out across the floor. Somebody dials up A-Ha, and Murphy, Ansari, and Chang join arms:
Take on me
(Take on me, echo the rest of us.)
Take me onnnn
I’ll be gone
In a day or two
Somehow it’s become 4 A.M. We roll out into the wet, shockingly empty streets, still singing, and try to orient ourselves home by the blinking roof lights of the Cerulean. What began with a pleading tweet from Ansari ends with a triumphant one: #WeDominatedTokyoKaraokeTonight.
Five hours later, Chang and I are back at Narita, spending our remaining yen on whatever we can find: bowls of ramen, katsu curry, bento boxes of premade sushi. It is Christmas Eve, and the terminal is mostly empty. As we walk down the boarding ramp, I can already feel the dreamscape of Tokyo falling away. Chang puts a pill in my hand; a twinkly-eyed male flight attendant with a beard and a Scandinavian accent takes my jacket and hands me a glass of champagne. I close my eyes, and when I reopen them we’re already on our final approach to JFK, coming down out of the clouds, back to the real world, banking in over the placid, gray winter sea.