Back in 1898 when a few clever minds got together to set up a 2-km-long railway to assist the increasing population praying at the Kawasaki Daishi Shrine in Kanagawa Prefecture, they knew they were on the right track. Over 120 years later, today this same line is called Keikyu and covers a total distance of 87 kilometers from Tokyo all the way to the splendid coastlines of Kanagawa Prefecture, and serves 2.63 million passengers per day — no laughing matter.
With a maximum speed of 120 km/h — the fastest of all local lines in the Kanto region — the “red bullet,” as many loyal fans call it, takes its job seriously: busy Tokyoites like doing things fast and their morning train ride is no exception. They also like to be entertained, however, and it turns out that this too, is something Keikyu is good at.
From local rails to fast track expansion
Launched as the first railway company in Japan to operate electric railways in the wide metropolitan Kanto region, Keikyu Line, operated by Keikyu Corporation, debuted under the name of Daishi Electric Railway. At the time, it connected Rokugobashi and Daishi stations, finally offering Kawasaki’s growing — and up to then, patiently walking — population a convenient transportation to the area’s most popular shrine. The line soon became well known, leading it to further expand its services between Shinagawa in Tokyo and Kawasaki in Kanagawa by 1905, to Uraga further in Kanagawa by 1933 and until Misakiguchi at the very tip of the prefecture by 1975. By this time, it had changed its corporate name to Keikyu Corporation, securing itself a position as one of Japan’s most valued commuter train operators.
Keikyu Corporation today is comprised of 54 group companies (as of March 2019), covering transportation, real estate, leisure, retailing and even construction businesses. But the core of its business lies in transportation, with the company now running five different lines, each connecting a key location in the capital with Kanagawa: the Keikyu Main Line runs from central Tokyo to Kawasaki and Yokohama, the Keikyu Airport Line goes to Haneda Airport, the Daishi Line to Kawasaki, the Zushi Line to Zushi and the Kurihama Line to the outskirts of Kanagawa. The company is also behind several of Japan’s best-known shopping complexes and entertainment facilities, including Keikyu department store, Keikyu EX Inn, Hayama Marina, and the Boat Race Heiwajima.
A ticket to Kanto’s freshest tuna … and more
But despite all of the accomplishments the company has achieved so far, local and international foodies would unanimously agree that Keikyu’s greatest invention to date is its Misaki Maguro Day Trip Ticket, launched in 2009. This clever discount ticket offers the full package of round-trip transportation from Shinagawa to Misakiguchi, plus a meal and activity coupon that can be used in a number of facilities in Misaki city, Kanagawa’s port city known for its delicious and fresh tuna. Reasonably priced (just ¥3,500 from Shinagawa), the discount pass was not only successful for Keikyu and its customers but for Misaki as well, a small town with an increasingly declining population. It helped boost tourism in the area to the extent that on weekends, queues of hungry customers in front of sushi shops around Misakiguchi station could easily be mistaken for Disneyland.
Ten years since its launch, sales of the Misaki Maguro Day Trip Ticket went from 15,898 in fiscal 2009 to 203,634 in fiscal 2017, becoming one of the most famous day trip destinations from Tokyo to Kanagawa Prefecture.
And that was only the beginning.
In the following year, Keikyu launched the Yokosuka Enjoy Ticket, a similar day trip package combining a dining and entertainment experience in the marine town of Yokosuka, famous for its massive USA-style burgers, curry, and U.S. base. Five years later, in 2015, the Hayama Excursion Ticket went on sale attracting predominantly women and couples to the beautiful beaches of Hayama in Kanagawa. The two discount passes sold 25,359 and 48,355 copies in fiscal 2017, respectively, increasing sales between 5.4 and 8 times since their launch, quickly becoming one of Keikyu’s best-selling products and a new source of tourism influx in each area.
This major success led Keikyu to further focus on tourism-related projects in the Miura Peninsula, focusing predominantly on underdeveloped and underpopulated areas.
One of its currently ongoing projects is “snow peak glamping keikyu kannonzaki” (glamorous camping) in Yokosuka, which Keikyu began operating at its Kannonzaki Keikyu Hotel in 2017 in collaboration with outdoor maker Snow Peak. The luxurious experience begins at the company-operated three fully equipped cottages at the beachside of the Miura Peninsula, overseeing the ocean, and comes with barbecue-style dinner using local and seasonal ingredients, an open-air bath and even an aroma massage.
With plans starting at 50,000 yen per cottage on weekdays, you’d think it wouldn’t be a peak destination, but Keikyu employees proudly say that it’s almost always booked — especially in summer.
The importance of having fun
As you get to know the company better, you start realizing that one of its greatest charms comes from the company’s ability to have fun at work giving its employees carte blanche to bring to the table even their most ridiculous ideas.
“It’s extremely easy to talk about new ideas here,” says Sanae Kaneko, an assistant manager at the Corporate Strategy Department, as she sips her green soda with a vanilla ice cream topping at the company’s office. “Most of the time those ideas also get incorporated, very soon too, and it’s fun to be able to constantly think of how we can entertain our passengers.”
So at Keikyu, it’s perfectly fine to change station names once in a while if a project is deemed fun. Keikyu Kamata suddenly became “Keikyu Kaamata-ta-ta-ta-ta” in July 2018 to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the popular anime Hokuto no Ken (Fist of the North Star) — if you’re a fan you’ll know where the atatatata comes from, and Kenritsu Daigaku Station became “Hokuto no KENritsu Daigaku” station, just for the sake of play on words.
A year before that Keikyu also thought it’d be fun to start selling bath mats inspired by station platforms or towels with maps of all Keikyu lines — and surprisingly these sold like fresh bread. And the latest gag was when Keikyu thought it’d be a good idea to install 3D arrow signs that appeared to pop up from the floor at Haneda Airport International Terminal Station. There was a bit of confusion at first, a few delicate trip avoidances followed by a good laugh — and tons of social media posts later.
“You can see we’re not bored here at all,” Kaneko says with a laugh.
This year, she promises that there will be an even greater surprise.
“Make sure you don't miss it,” she nods with a cheeky smile as she tries to catch the last piece of ice cream in her glass.
With all that Keikyu has offered us so far, we’ll certainly keep an eye on it.
This is the sixth story in Japan Today’s new Japan Business Spotlight series, which brings the spotlight on Japanese domestic companies, from small-scale family-run businesses to now worldwide corporate giants. In this series, we trace the roots of their foundations, we look at the faces behind their stories and the concepts behind their most recent innovations. Our first series introduces seven businesses based in or operating in Kanagawa Prefecture.
Read more articles from our Japan Business Spotlight: Kanagawa:
- Odakyu Electric Railways: Leading all roads to Hakone … and beyond
- Royal Blue Tea: Elevating Tea Culture, From Japan to the World
- Iwai Sesame Oil: The taste of one family business 160 years in the making
- Misaki Megumi Suisan: Promoting Japan’s ‘maguro’ — not tuna — to the world
- Venex: How a small Japanese company could hold the key to global stress relief