In January 2001, I was riding a single-car train through Hokkaido ski-country when a blizzard swept in without warning and stopped us dead on our tracks. It was 11 a.m. but the snow clotted the windows dark and the wind rocked us so hard it felt as if we would tip over.

The only other passengers were three middle-aged Japanese men. Dressed in suits and black ties, they looked more prepared for a funeral service than the wilds of Hokkaido.

One of the men spotted the panicked expression on my face and, after calling me over in perfect English, invited me to sit with them.