Doot Experiences creates social dinners with locals at food spots only they know – the perfect way to enrich your travels in Japan.
1. Why compare Japan and South Korea to each other?
If you’re wanting to visit the Far East, South Korea and Japan are options that are right at the top of the list. If you don’t have time to visit both and can only pick one, it can be a hard decision to make.
I decided to make a comparison between the two countries to make your thoughts about this more clear. Now, if you look at my other posts, you’ll see that I have a lot of experience traveling in Japan and can make enough judgements about it. However, I’ve never been to South Korea before!
2. How and why to compare the two countries
At first I was going to reach out to other bloggers to get them to write about their experience in South Korea. I’d write about Japan in return, and we’d compare one another’s words about each country.
But then I thought of something else. It may not be the better idea financially, but it’s certainly the more fun idea: I’ll just visit South Korea and do the comparison myself. It’ll be as fresh and as first-hand as can be. I’m going to be visiting South Korea for one week and will be traveling to the two major South Korean cities: Seoul and Busan. They’re the two cities that are typically found on a traveler’s itinerary to South Korea.
To follow the trip and updates in real-time, follow Doot on Instagram. It’ll be focused on showing contrasts and similarities, as well as the coolest things to do or see.
I’ll compare Japan and South Korea on a handful of criteria.
- Cost of travel.
- Ease of travel.
- Comfort levels.
- Food culture.
- Historical background.
- Things to do (volume and quantity).
- Social atmospheres.
UPDATE: The trip is over and the comparison is in!
Doot Experiences creates social dinners with locals at food spots only they know – the perfect way to enrich your travels in Japan.
The Japan and South Korea Country Comparison
Both Japan and South Korea have strong fans and supporters
There are very few countries in the world that can develop a cult-like following and promotion by foreign visitors. Both Japan and South Korea have made huge fans of people around the world, each debating about which country is better than the other.
The true answer, in my opinion, is that they’re both brilliant in different ways.
If I had to summarize it, South Korea is like the cool uncle that showers you with gifts and love, but he’s a bit messy. Japan is like a strict stepfather with an interesting past. He will take excellent care of you, but do so from a bit of an emotional distance. It depends on what you’re looking for.
1. The Cost of Travel in Japan and South Korea
Summary: Food and accommodation costs are similar in both countries, nightlife is cheaper and better in South Korea, and transportation is far cheaper in South Korea.
The cost of food is relatively similar. Eating out at a restaurant will set you back by about $8 – $12 in both countries, depending on what you order. Eating street food is about $3 – $5 per item. Surprisingly, convenience stores tended to be about 10% more expensive in South Korea in comparison to Japan, often with lesser variety or refinement.
If you’re looking at a night out, you’ll find that alcohol is comparably expensive – about $5 – $7 per drink. It’s quite pricey, so you’ll definitely want to pre-drink before going out. However, entrance fees in Korea to clubs or bars is at least 20% – 30% cheaper than Japan, and often with far more variety, depending where you are. Nightlife is also far more prominent and exciting in South Korea.
If you stay in hostels, accommodation is slightly cheaper in South Korea compared to Japan, often with a similar level of service and cleanliness.
Transport is the key area where you’ll save money in Korea. The bullet train is about 1/3 of the price of Japan’s. The metro and local trains are at least half the price. The inner city buses are 10% of the price of Japan’s, often taking you much farther. Taxis are incredibly cheap in Korea. I took an hour-long taxi ride in Korea, and it was cheaper than a 20 minute ride in Japan. There’s no reason not to use a taxi in Korea – whereas in Japan, you should avoid them at all costs.
2. The Ease of Travel
Summary: Both countries have similarly advanced levels of transportation infrastructure. I’d argue that although Japan’s public transport networks go to perhaps more places across the country, Korea is more flexbile and places are just as accessible considering the low cost of taxis.
The summary may have you a bit confused, so let me give you a quick example from each country.
I was staying in Osaka, Japan. You can get practically anywhere by using the subway system for a reasonable price. One night I went out to eat on the other side of the city. I stayed out a little too late and missed the last train. I decided to take a taxi for 25 or so minutes, which set me back 3 500 yen (~$35). That was about 2 000 yen ($20) more expensive than my actual meal. An expensive mistake. Thereafter, I decided to walk if I needed to because the cost of taxis just aren’t worth it.
When I was in Korea, I visited Incheon city, which is about an hour drive away from Seoul. Once again, I missed the last train and needed to take a taxi back to Seoul. The drive took about an hour, and set me back just 27 000 won (~$25, or 2 500 yen). Double the time, more than double the distance (since we drove on the highway most of the time), and still a whole lot cheaper.
The ability to use taxis for a reasonable price gives South Korea huge points in ease of travel, even though Japan’s transport network is very extensive and efficient during the day. Overall, I’m a bit more satisfied with South Korea’s ease of transport, though Japan’s transport is still at an incredible high standard. I’d call this one a tie.
3. Comfort levels in Japan and South Korea
Summary: I’m going to need to give this one to Japan. Japan, on average, is far cleaner and more comfortable than South Korea. In terms of safety, they’re both super comfortable.
If you’ve read anything about traveling in South Korea, the conversation about the toilets is bound to have come up once or twice.
There’s no way to mince these words: they’re filthy. There’s a bin next to the toilet that you throw your soiled toilet paper into. It’s not uncommon to see it overflowing. The toilets are often clogged.
In Seoul, I went into a club called Sinkhole, and I saw the worst bathroom I’ve seen in my entire life. It was like someone went in there with a baseball bat, smashed everything, backlogged the toilets, flooded the floors and bashed down the doors. Frighteningly filthy.
Comparably, Japan’s toilets are high-tech, have electronic bidets, and are always spotlessly clean.
Likewise, the streets in Japan are spotless. Seeing trash on the floors in Japan is uncommon. In South Korea, especially later at night, the streets are covered in trash.
Japan is much cleaner. In terms of safety, however, they’re both just as comfortable as each other. You can walk in the streets late at night practically anywhere and feel unbothered and safe. It’s a tie in that area.
4. The food cultures in Japan and South Korea
Summary: Both countries have incredibly famous cuisines, praised for their high-quality standards and tastiness. My personal preference leans slightly more towards Korean food for the variety and inclusion of spiciness, but I’m still a huge fan of Japanese food.
Before visiting Korea, I hadn’t had much exposure to Korean food. After visiting Korea, I was very happy with the food that I’d tried. I like the variety of flavors, the frequent use of chili spice, and the large portions of vegetables.
Japanese food will always rank highly on my list of cuisines, but I find the simple and limited flavors to become a little too familiar after a while. In addition, Japan is not very liberal with their use of fresh or healthy vegetables, which is always an addition that I appreciate.
Again, it’s a really close call here, but I tip slightly in favor of Korea.
5. Historical backgrounds of Japan and South Korea
Summary: In hindsight, I’m not too fond of making a comparison on this point. Comparing how interesting the historical backgrounds of two countries are doesn’t make an awful lot of sense to do, and I’m not sure on what criteria I’d rate them.
Both countries have an interesting background, with Japan’s name coming up more in South Korea’s history records than the inverse. Japan had a lot of colonial and imperial involvement in Korea, which Korea often recounts with a lot of seriousness. A lot of Korea’s historical spots are described within an international context and how Korea fits into the international community, or related to the development of their nation and how their culture came to be. I highly recommend visiting the National Museum of Korea – it’s well worth your time.
In contrast, a lot of Japan’s historical spots are quite self-promotional. It’s a pretty internal view and perspective, often with religious or cultural explanations or relevance. Japan’s sites often talk about how and where materials were sourced (usually somewhere in Japan) to construct whatever you’re looking at, occasionally about how it was destroyed in the world war and reconstructed, or about the historical era it was constructed in. The best museum I’ve visited in Japan is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.
6. Things To Do In Japan and South Korea
Summary: There’s a lot to do in both Japan and South Korea – more than enough to keep you entertained for weeks-on-end in both countries. Cultural spots are incredibly dense in Japan, largely due to the Japanese government’s recent interest in strengthening tourism. Natural sites (hiking, mountain climbing etc) are as common in South Korea as in Japan.
You won’t be at a loss for what to do in either country. Both countries have an abundance of food markets, scenery, beaches and interesting stores.
In my opinion, Japan has a much higher density of cultural spots to visit – there’s a temple, shrine or UNESCO site on practically every corner, with a long and detailed history. Korea isn’t lacking in this either – not by any means – but Japan really takes it to the next level.
Even in a small Japanese city like Kanazawa (pop. 350 000), you can find: one of Japan’s three great gardens, an old samurai house, a castle, a ninja temple full of traps, a museum of modern art, an old tea district, a major fish market, a temple district, a philosopher museum, and much more. Tourism is fast becoming one of Japan’s major industries, and it’s just a reflection of their economic focus.
But like I said earlier – South Korea has bomb-ass nightlife. It depends what you’re looking for. There’s a common saying among travelers in Asia: “after a while, all temples start to look the same”. There’s only so many times you can visit a temple and have a genuine interest in it.
Overall, there’s more things to do in Japan, but I’d say that Korea tends to be a bit more varied with what it offers. This is a close one though and truly depends on your preferences.
7. Social atmospheres in Japan and South Korea
Summary: This is the easiest one for me to give you an answer to. If you read part 2, you’ll read about the deep relationships I developed with multiple people in a single week. In contrast, it’s a lot harder to develop these deep relationships in Japan. South Koreans tended to be a lot more open and friendly, whereas the Japanese are incredibly polite, but more reserved and harder to build whirlwind friendships with.
Really and truly, there are far more opportunities to meet Koreans than there are to meet Japanese people. And to take that a step further, I found it far easier to build connections with Koreans than I’ve ever found it to build connections with Japanese people – even though I speak Japanese and I don’t speak Korean.
Beyond Korea having more opportunities to socialize, Koreans also tended to have higher levels of English than the Japanese, and they also tended to be more receptive to and engaged in conversations with new people.
In comparison, people in Japan do engage with you if you need to, but more often than not, they’ll be polite and give you the time of day, but not very interested in going further than that. Everyone in Japan has a story about a local saying, “we should do XYZ together!”, only to learn that it was more a courtesy statement than anything with real intent.
In contrast, in Korea, a person I’d met just a few hours ago said, “let’s dress up in traditional Korean clothing and visit the palace together!” and it actually happened. There are very little superficial comments made for the sake of politeness.
Fortunately, if you want to meet Japanese people and build genuine connections, you could always go on a Doot Experience.
All the locals on Doot are there with the intent to build long-lasting and genuine relationships with travelers. These type of people are rare to find in general, but Doot is on a mission to find these special personalities and connect them to travelers. It’s pretty much a shortcut to meeting people, and creates the social environment and atmosphere that Japan tends to lack as a whole. Give it a try.
So, should I visit Japan or South Korea?
Should you visit Japan or South Korea if you only had the option for one…Well, by now I hope the answer is clear to you based on what I’ve written above.
I’ve fallen in love with both countries for very different reasons, and I’ll definitely keep living and/or returning to both of them for the rest of my life.
After this three-part series, I hope it’s clearer to you what each country is about and what you’re looking for. If you had one choice, where do you think you’d go and why? Let us know in the comments – I’d love to hear how you feel.