Imagine a classic Japanese vehicle, avant garde in its time, beloved by fans, and part of a record-setting and influential legacy. For fans of Japanese nostalgic train, that vehicle is the Odakyu 7000 Series LSE Romancecar. Since 1980, this Japanese railway icon has ferried people from Tokyo to Hakone in luxury and style, and today, sadly, is the final run of its long and distinguished 38-year service history.
The Romancecars belong to a long-running service line of Odakyu Electric Railway, a private rail company that, starting in 1927, has operated electric rail services between Shinjuku in Tokyo and Odawara, gateway to the nearby Hakone mountain. Odakyu is a contraction of Odawara Kyuko or Odawara Express, the original name of the company.
Those who have visited the old Subaru headquarters side of Shinjuku Station have undoubtedly seen the giant Odakyu department store that anchors the terminal there. The store is also owned by the Odakyu company, and gives travelers a place to shop and eat before they take off to points beyond.
The Romancecar moniker originates from the seating arrangement in the passenger cars — two seats without an armrest in between. Other rail companies in Japan have operated “romancecar” services, but the term has by now been trademarked by and is synonymous with Odakyu.
From its inception, Odakyu’s Shinjuku-Odawara service was catered around weekend tourists from Tokyo traveling to the beaches of Odawara and the onsen (hot springs) of Hakone. Incidentally, Mount Hakone’s touge is one of the three birthplaces of underground drifting, and is considered one of the best driving roads of Japan.
These post-war “weekend spa express” trains began service in 1948, with Odakyu officially adopting the Romanecar name in 1949. The 1900 Series Romancecars were rather ordinary narrow-gauge trains of the time, operating at a top speed of 95 kph (60 mph) and completing the Shinjuku-Odawara journey in 90 minutes. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of these trains was the “running tea room” in the subsequent 1910 Series, complete with a tea ceremony counter and serving fresh seat-side tea to the passengers.
To most rail fans, however, the Romancecar will likely always be linked with the later streamlined Odakyu Super Express trains. In the 1950s, Odakyu collaborated with the Railway Technical Research Institute of Japan National Railways (JNR) to develop the next-generation express trains. The resulting Odakyu 3000 Series SE, for Super Express, was a revolutionary feat of design and engineering. It sported a slippery, paradigm-shattering aerodynamic shape informed by aviation design. In addition, it was engineered to be lightweight, with a low center gravity, and much safer than contemporary trains.
This new Super Express began operation in July 1957, just in time for summer vacation getaways. Two months later, Odakyu and JNR conducted a high-speed trial with the new streamlined Super Express on the JNR Tokaido Main Line. They achieved a high speed of 145 kph (90 mph), fast enough to set the world record for narrow-gauge trains at the time. Significantly, this achievement was instrumental in JNR’s development of the high-speed train that would eventually become the world-famous Shinkansen.
Needless to say, the 3000 Series SE was a hit. The vermilion bullet became an instant favorite among passengers and rail enthusiasts alike. The train won the inaugural Blue Ribbon Award bestowed by the Japan Railfan Club. A huge commercial success for Odakyu, by 1958 all Shinjuku-Odawara service was replaced by the Super Express. Transit time of the trip was quickly cut down, reaching sixty-four minutes by 1961.
The success of the 3000 Series SE boosted popularity of the Shinjuku-Odawara service even more. No doubt Japan’s economic boom of the 1960s further contributed to increased ridership. Along with the anticipation for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Odakyu quickly developed and put into operation the next generation of Romancecars, the 3100 Series NSE (New Super Express).
The new Romancecar was larger, faster, and with a heavier emphasis on luxury. Importantly, it marked the appearance of a signature Romancecar feature: the observation seats at either end of the train sets, made possible by the cockpit being mounted on the deck above the passenger cabin. This gave the 3100 Series its unmistakable appearance which, along with its streamlined shape and uniquely-shaped light pods, evokes a decidedly retro-futuristic, spaceship-like air. As the flagship of Odakyu’s fleet, the NSE certainly attracted the attention and interest of customers.
The next iteration of the Romancecar would not come until the 7000 Series LSE was introduced in 1980. The new Luxury Super Express would be the longest-running Romancecar model, and carried on many traditions set by its predecessor but with modern technology and equipment. In size and capacity, it was similar to the 3100 Series NSE.
In design, it was a contemporary interpretation of the 3100. Numerous details, such as the dual-pane folding doors and the moquette-clad seats, were chosen to evoke the tradition and nostalgia of the Romancecars that, by then, had been carrying Tokyo weekenders to Hakone for over three decades.
Like its predecessors, the 7000 Series LSE clinched the Blue Ribbon Award upon its debut. It became an icon of Bubble Era Japan, a symbol of glamorous escapes from Tokyo’s rapidly changing metropolis to the beautiful countryside. It was even faster, capable of 110 kph (70 mph) and like its predecessors, the LSE also enjoyed an incredibly long service life.
The original Super Express remained in service for 31 years, while the New Super Express ran for 37. By the time you read this, the Luxury Super Express will have capped a 38-year career. It witnessed the rise and fall of Japan’s economic boom, from Honda City to Skyline GT-R to Eclipse Cross.
The 7000 Series LSE’s final regular operations run was scheduled for today, July 10th, 2018, with departure ceremonies held at both Shinjuku and Hakone-Yumoto Stations. Commemorative boarding certificates were given on the train. Last but not least, and in the best of Japanese fashion, Odakyu is currently running the “LSE Thank You Campaign” in which a hundred riders will be chosen from the first 200 who collect and submit four observation seat tickets from LSE, VSE, and GSE Romancecar types, and given a commemorative ride on the 7000 Series LSE in September.
So farewell to this icon of 1980s Japan. But lest you weep for its end, the LSE already has a long list of Romancecar successors, many faithful to the tradition. No fewer than six new Romancecar train types have been introduced since 1988, with the newest one — the 70000 Series GSE — having entered service this March. We particularly approve of the GSE’s heritage design with the observation seats, elevated cockpit, and vermilion color. Next time you’re in Japan, hop on it for a romantic ride to Hakone.
Image credits Odakyu Electric Railway, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0