I spent a week in South Korea last month – 4 days in Seoul, 3 days in Busan.
I’ve had a handful of folks ask me about my thoughts on Tokyo vs Seoul and Japan vs South Korea on the whole. I have spent considerable time in Japan at this point and only one week in South Korea so my observations and opinions are pretty surface-level at this point. I will actually be back in Seoul for a few days at the end of this week so I’ll be able to diligently observe and collect more data.
South Korea is definitely cheaper than Japan. That is a fact.
Seoul somehow feels more westernized to me. There are more English signs in subways and more English menus in restaurants. It felt as if English was more widely-spoken in general. Cashiers, salespeople and waitresses are all courteous but just courteous enough; they are not over-the-top chipper and polite like in Japan. They are just normal. Things feel a bit more fast-paced and transactional in South Korea. Like Japan, the subway and the KTX (shinkansen-equivalent) are efficient, timely and clean, but you actually can hear noise and chatter on the rides. A train ride in Japan is a much quieter experience due to the strong value Japan places on respect and modesty. I think first-time visitors outside of Asia would experience less culture shock coming to South Korea and may feel more comfortable, at least initially.
When I say more “westernized,” I don’t mean to suggest Tokyo is less modern than Seoul. Tokyo and much of Japan is incredibly modern, but in it’s own special kind of way. For example, you have the Japanese super toilet that heats up and warms your bum, sprays you in whatever way you want and sing songs to mask natural bodily noises. The super toilet is not a norm in Europe or the United States though; we just have the standard western toilet.
Another example is Japanese onigiri, or riceball wrapped in seaweed. If you go to a convenience store in Japan and pick up an onigiri for a quick bite on the go, you will understand how masterfully wrapped and packaged this food really is. The Japanese have developed a plastic-wrapping technique where the crispy, dried seaweed doesn’t actual make contact with the sticky rice until you unwrap it. Nobody likes a sandwich with soggy, mayo or mustard-soaked bread. Well, the Japanese don’t like soggy, moist seaweed on their onigiri either. Their special 3-step unwrapping packaging technique keeps the seaweed dry and crispy. For a visual of what I mean, check out this video. The United States packaged sandwich-makers should take a hint.
So besides being very modern but feeling less Western than South Korea, Japan puts a crazy-strong emphasis on customer service and polite behavior in public. I would argue there is no country as polite and attentive as the Japanese when it comes to serving people. There is even a word they use for Japanese-style customer service: omotenashi. Basically the person who attends to you will treat you like a god. They bow a bunch, handle your goods as they would tiny, fragile babies and thank you multiple times. Here is an entertaining video of a customer service employee who literally pops out of a subway machine when a foreigner presses the help button. South Korea doesn’t go anywhere near this far when it comes to customer service.
There are a lot of similarities between South Korea and Japan as well. Besides the efficient public transportation I mentioned earlier, both countries are known for mastering skincare and producing great skincare products. Both love their themed-cafes. In Japan you have cuddle cafes, dog and cat cafes, the Moonin cafe… Korea has all that as well as racoon cafes, owl cafes and the amazingly pink Hello Kitty cafe. Although I don’t understand any Korean, as someone who speaks Japanese, I believe the two languages have resemblances and sound kind of alike. Both are extremely safe places with minimal drug-use. Both cultures bow, show minimal PDA…the list goes on.
I found traveling through South Korea to be very easy and pleasant. I felt extremely safe and comfortable as a female solo traveler and didn’t have any qualms about being out past dark. Due to the proximity, there are a ton of Japanese tourists who visit South Korea and vice versa. There is overlap between the culture and customs but enough differences where my recent visit served as a refreshing and strongly-welcomed break from Japan.