Paris vs Rome. Sydney vs Melbourne. Shanghai vs Beijing.
Timeless traveler arguments that we’ve all heard before. But why not Seoul vs Tokyo?
Seoul and Tokyo have a lot of things in common. Both are super cities, home to tens of millions of people. Both have huge technological industries. Both are hubs of creativity. The cities are only a 2 hour flight apart- so why does Tokyo hold so much more international recognition than Seoul? Can Seoul compete with Tokyo? Is it ready to fight with the big dogs?
If you’re planning a trip to Asia, you might be considering visiting one of these huge cities. But which one should you choose?
One of the things that I like best about Seoul is the variety of attractions for tourists- both new and historical. You can spend the morning exploring the ancient palaces, then visit Seoul’s super modern Namsan Tower in the afternoon. You can go exploring the Hanok village and see how people used to live in Korea then sprawl down streets filled with shops and fashion conscious Koreans in Myeongdong. You can visit one of the many museums or art galleries. You can visit one of the many themed cafes in the city- I’m looking at you, Hello Kitty! If you love hiking, the city is surrounded with mountains providing an amazing view of the city, better than any city’s viewing tower. If you have kids, or just love thrills, you have the choice of 2 amusement parks! And of course, if it’s your thing, you can go and stand face to face with a North Korean soldier! I have travelled to Seoul 3 times and still feel as though I have barely scratched the surface- I always leave with something else on my “next time” list.
Tokyo has a lot of amazing and unique attractions of its own. There are so many museums, temples, shrines, gardens and of course, crazy themed cafes! However, there is one thing that definitely stands out- Tokyo is lacking in history. This is to be expected, since the city was practically bombed to nothing in the 2nd World War. But if you want to learn more about the culture of a country, surely you want to experience some of it’s history without needing to go into a museum. You want to walk around and experience it. Unfortunately, a trip to Tokyo alone won’t allow you to do this.
The Verdict- Seoul
For me, this would have to be Seoul. It really does showcase the best of Korea and the variety of things to do is astounding. Although Tokyo will definitely keep you entertained, if you want to see the best of Japan, you would need to pair your trip to a more historical city like Kyoto to really see both the modern and ancient sides of Japan. You can’t really experience the best of Japan with just a trip to Tokyo.
Whenever I go to Seoul, I always have a list of restaurants that I want to go to. Compared to the rest of Korea, there is a huge choice of international food, particularly in Sinchon and Itaewon. There is also a growing trend for Korean fusions restaurants, like Vatos, a Korean-Mexican fusion restaurant that offers some amazing combos like Galbi Burritos and kimchi fries. The Insadong neighbourhood, known for its handcrafts, is a great place to try a lot of different traditional food and experience Korean banquet style dining. However, trying to find authentic Korean food in less touristy parts of town can be difficult if you aren’t familiar with the Korean alphabet as English menus aren’t always common. It can also be difficult to find what to eat if you don’t know what you’re looking for. You need to do a bit of research and find out what sort of thing you fancy and where you can eat it. This is the safest bet in order to avoid ordering what you think looks like a delicious spicy chicken dish, but that ends up being secret squid!
If you are a foodie, Tokyo is a paradise! I found the Japanese restaurants to be really reasonably priced- I can go to a sit down sushi restaurant (not a conveyor belt place) and stuff my face for about 2500 yen (about 15GBP) including drinks. Much like Seoul, Tokyo also has a lot of international restaurants from a huge variety of countries. On my trip I even visited a Scottish restaurant that made its own haggis which of course was amazing! Aside from that, I never felt much need to visit international restaurants- instead, I ate ramen, katsu curry, shabu-shabu and sushi every day! The food was so good and I don’t think I can ever go to Wagamamas again when I go back to the UK- Tokyo has ruined me for life!
The Verdict- Tokyo
The food in Tokyo is absolutely amazing. My taste buds still dream about my trip there! One of my favourite parts of travelling to a new country is being able to sample the local cuisines and in Tokyo you are really spoiled with choice when it comes to Japanese food! Seoul is of course also a great place for Korean food, but it just isn’t as easily accessible or identifiable to first time tourists.
On almost every street in Seoul you will find vendors selling tteokboki (rice cakes in a spicy sauce), odeong (Korean fishcakes) and twigim (korean-style tempura.) Winter is a great time to try street food in Korea (although it’s maybe not the best time to visit, with the blisteringly cold temperatures) as you’ll find lots of ajeosshis (older men/ uncles) at their street carts selling sweet potatoes and chestnuts which make for a great snack on a cold day. One of the best places to try a few different Korean foods, and fill up for less than 5,000KRW (3GBP/4.30USD) is Gwangjang Market. The most popular foods to eat here are Maki Kimbab, which translates to “drug kimbab” since it’s so addictive, and traditional mungbean pancakes. However, there are so many different types of food you can try here- you can even live octopus if you’re feeling brave! If you’ve got room for dessert then you should try some hotteok. This is probably one of my favourite Korean street foods. It’s a Korean style pancake filled with cinnamon, brown sugar and nuts. Like Maki Kimbab, it’s so addictive. And even better, it’s only 1,000KRW!
There is definitely not as wide a variety of street food in Tokyo as there is in Seoul. Japan’s most famous street foods, takoyaki and okinamiyaki are actually quite difficult to find in Tokyo, as they are from the Kansai region of Japan. Aside from the famous crepes in Harajuku, and the occasional yakitori stand, street food really isn’t prevalent, and you definitely couldn’t make a meal out of it!
The Verdict- Seoul
This is a pretty obvious choice. Amazing street food on every corner, yum! Sorry, Tokyo!
For such a huge, westernized city, Seoul is surprisingly affordable.
One way subway ticket- 1,350KRW (0.80GBP/1.15USD)
Dorm Bed- 10,000KRW (6GBP/8.60USD)
Double Room- 40,000KRW (24GBP/35USD)
Entry to N Seoul Tower- 10,000KRW (6GBP/8.60USD)
Lunch for one in a local restaurant- 7,000KRW (4.20GBP/6USD)
Lunch for one in a western restaurant- 12,000KRW (7GBP/10.40USD)
I hear a lot of hype about how super expensive Tokyo is, so I was a bit apprehensive about travelling there. When I got there I actually found it to be much cheaper than most European cities. It’s expensive by Asian standards, but not really by Western standards. The Japanese yen is weak against most currencies the moment, making now a good time to visit!
One way subway ticket- between 170 and 310 JPY (1.05-1.90GBP/1.50-2.75USD)
Dorm Bed- 2,500 JPY 2500JPY (15GBP/ 22USD)
Double Room- 8,000 JPY (50GBP/70USD)
Entry to Tokyo Sky tree- 2,060JPY (12GBP/18USD)
Lunch for one in a local restaurant- 750 JPY (4.65GBP/6.70USD)
One plate of sushi (2pcs) at a conveyor belt restaurant- 100 JPY (0.60GBP/0.90USD)
Lunch for one in a western restaurant- 1,600 JPY (10GBP/14USD)
The Verdict- Seoul
Your wons will go so much further in Seoul! Coming from the UK, I find the value for money outstanding here. If you’re on a really tight budget you can survive on less than 25,000KRW a day easily, just by staying in cheap dorm rooms, making use of free attractions and eating street food/ convenience store food- that would barely cover your hostel bed in Tokyo!
Seoul’s subway system is really easy to navigate, especially with the help of an app. What I like best about the subway in Seoul is that every station has an English map, all the stations are numbered and they play a fanfare when you are approaching a popular station- yes, really! Taxis are also pretty cheap here, meaning that you don’t have to worry too much about getting back to your hotel after a night out. Starting fare is 3,000KRW (1.80GBP/2.60USD) for the first 2KM and then 150KRW (9p/12cents) for each 150m after that.
For such an advanced city, I was a bit bemused that there were no English subway maps at some of the most popular stations in Tokyo. The subway system is huge and I found it to be a bit of a nightmare to navigate as a first time visitor. However, one thing that I do love about transport Japan is their super cute taxis- you don’t even have to worry about opening the door as they will open themselves for you! Proper first class customer service! The taxi drivers are usually dressed in suits and are remarkably polite. One taxi I took a trip in had lace curtains- so posh!
As you can probably expect, fares are much higher than in Seoul- starting at 710JPY (4.40GBP/6.30USD) for the first 2KM and 310JPY (1.90GBP/2.75USD) for each 1KM after that. Ouch! You’ll probably want to catch the last subway home, or choose to stay in whatever area you want to party in.
The Verdict- Seoul
Cheap subways, cheap taxis and an easy system to follow make Seoul a clear winner. If only the drivers could be as lovely and polite as the Tokyo taxi drivers- that would be an absolute dreamworld!
I feel like this is something that has to be said. For me it’s one of the most glaring differences between the 2 cities. Before I start, I must say that the majority of the Korean people I’ve met have been so welcoming and kind to me. However, one thing I still shake to ignore is the spitting, shoving and shouting which is in an absolute abundance on the streets and public transport of Seoul.
Being brought up in the UK where most people I know (including myself) apologise after walking into inanimate objects, you can imagine how annoyed I was the first time a tiny old woman shoved me out her way on the subway without apologising. It’s something that you need to take with a pinch of salt, and will only affect your trip if you focus on it and let it ruin your trip. A lot of people actually think that the spitting, shouting and shoving adds to Korea’s charm because it makes it more real, and they find the people to be less reserved than in other Asian countries. Like everything else, it’s personal preference.
Taxi drivers can also make or break your trip. I’ve experienced a lot of taxi drivers who want to practice their English or just want to find out more about where I’m from and why I’m in Korea. These are the nice taxi drivers. However, there are also the taxi drivers who starting sighing and shouting “Eh!” “Eh!” “Eh!” as soon as they see you are a foreigner and refuse to listen to what you’re saying, even if you say it to them in Korean. These taxi drivers are arseholes. Just like the taxi drivers who refuse to pick you up because you are a foreigner. Unfortunately, racism is an issue in Korea and something that a lot of people find hard to look past.
Tokyo is the complete opposite end of the spectrum. The manners and level of politeness that you will experience in Japan is second to none. One of the things that I love most about the people in Japan is that whenever I’ve been lost, I’ve not even had to ask for help. Someone will see me looking confused and come over and try to ask me where I want to go, regardless of how confident they are speaking English- this kind of thing does not happen in Korea, and I think makes Japan totally unique.
I’m always overwhelmed by the kindness of Japanese people. Like you would with most big cities, you would think that the people would be less friendly than other places, but the people in Tokyo are the absolute loveliest people! Also, Tokyo is a really cosmopolitan place. I don’t feel like as much as an alien in Tokyo as I do in Seoul. People aren’t shocked to see me. People don’t stare. I feel really welcome when I visit. Some of my fondest memories of visiting Japan are the memories of the kind strangers I’ve encountered.
The Verdit- Tokyo
For me, Tokyo is a complete breath of fresh air! For some people, they find the level of politeness to be a bit contrived. Whatever your opinion, it’s nice to know that if you get lost, someone will help you. That being said, don’t write Seoul off just because of what I’ve said- it is an absolutely amazing city and I guess it’s just another part of the culture.
So, What Sets Seoul and Tokyo Apart?
For me, Seoul is one the most unique cities I’ve ever visited- I love the blend of ancient traditional buildings with skyscrapers, all surrounded by mountains. I recently saw a photo on InstaGram of girls wearing hanboks (Korea’s traditional dress) in McDonalds- I think this perfectly sums up the mix of old and new that is around every corner in Seoul.
The nightlife is also so much fun- especially the “studenty” neighbourhoods like Hongdae, which is a great place check out bars and clubs, or even just to buy a cocktail bag and chill out listening to live music in the park. These student areas are also amazing for shopping- everything is priced to sell to poor students! For me, Seoul has the best of Korea, all in one city. The K-Wave is surely spreading it’s way around the world, and as it gets bigger the country will experience a lot more international tourism! If you come now, you can experience all of the amazing attractions without the crowds of tourists.
On the other hand Tokyo is the neon embellished, manga central, ultra mental, sprawling metropolis you imagined. Even watching Lost in Translation a million times couldn’t prepare me for it. It’s so huge and the city is so varied. Although it’s lacking in sights, it is full of charming and eclectic neighbourhoods, all with their own identity. It’s a city I’d love to live in- it feels electric from the moment you step off the plane.
It reminded of London a bit, in that you just have to go a few steps on the tube and you’ll be in a completely different place with a completely different feel! It’s also a huge hub for creativity and subculture. If you love anime and manga, then Tokyo will be like a heaven. Even if you don’t, you’ll enjoy observing the craze. There are so many things that I encountered in Tokyo that made me think, “Wow! Only in Tokyo!” It’s like a big real life, urban, Takeshi’s Castle!
So, What’s The Final Verdict?
Honestly, it’s a draw. Both cities are amazing in their own way. Both cities have their own charms and charisma. I’d say, if you’re adventurous and looking to take a chance on a place that isn’t exactly on everyone’s radars yet, then head to Seoul. There’s so much to see and do, and you’ll be able to experience so much of the city without completely blowing your budget.
If you are obsessed with Japan and all things manga, then go to Tokyo. Don’t settle for Seoul thinking that it’s going to be like a cheaper Tokyo because it isn’t. It’s its own city, with its own character, and isn’t a cheap imitation of anyone! Or, if you have a few spare pennies in your pocket and enough time, do both! See for yourself which city you prefer. And please, take me with you!
If you are heading to Tokyo soon, here are some things that you definitely shouldn’t miss on your trip!
Heading to Seoul? Looking to explore the rest of Korea? Check out my Korea posts!
Which city does it for you?