Two bucket list places ticked in the space of a few days. So what’s the answer to the question I get asked regularly – which was better?
When I went to South Korea I visited only Seoul; in Japan I visited Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. Each place was very different and had their own charm. A couple things to note that did impact my time was the weather and my budget. Seoul was grey, cloudy and a bit rainy, which might sound like a bad thing but it was still warm and made it perfect weather for walking everywhere and we could still do everything. There is huge umbrella culture in Seoul and so every hostel and hotel will likely hand out brollys for you to use, places we visited even had umbrella lockers and storage.
Whereas, in Japan it was extremely sunny and hot. Again, sounds like a good thing but when you’re in cities and not on beaches or with a pool to escape to, it can be a hindrance rather than a positive. Tokyo was actually fine, don’t get me wrong it was hot, but we still were okay walking around and doing everything. When we got to Kyoto it was so, so, so hot, on one day when we got to the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine, it was too hot to walk up it and we ended up going back to our hotel room to escape the heat. Osaka was also very hot, we did everything we wanted but we definitely had to take it slow and find shade, aircon and spots to rest. We knew it was going to be extremely hot in Japan in July but it was the only time we could squeeze it in before typhoon season and then winter which we hadn’t packed for, so it is entirely our fault for going that time of year. It was still amazing though. The second thing that has impacted my judgement is the fact that I was on a backpacker budget. While accomodation was expensive in both places, Seoul was actually much more purse friendly – I will get onto why later.
Food: Sushi vs. Gimbap
Japanese food is iconic and one of my favourite cuisines. I was so excited to eat my way through the country and tick off eating each traditional item there. I haven’t eaten as much Korean food in my life as Japanese but I am still familiar with lots of the dishes and meals there. However, I wasn’t expecting quite how amazing market and street food culture is there. This was one of the main things that made Seoul much more affordable than Japan as the food at the markets is so cheap. That rule goes across the whole of asia. It is also much easier to be vegetarian in South Korea than Japan. I do eat fish still so that definitely helped me in Japan but Gee who I travelled with is veggie and it would take us ages to find somewhere that does vegetarian food or alter a meal and remove the meat. I sadly didn’t get to try a Korean BBQ when I was in South Korea partly due to budget and partly due to these dietary constrictions, but when I return I will be finding one. There are similarities between Japanese and Korean food, from sushi and gimbap to ramen and kalguksu. I loved getting to try both and eat something new every day.
If you’re going to Japan on a budget then Kura Sushi helped us a lot. There is a big variety of options, including veggie and vegan, and is about less than 80p a plate. It is a chain so you should be able to find it in the big cities, we had it in Tokyo and Osaka, but it obviously isn’t the best sushi you can get in Japan. When I return and have a bit of a better budget, I can’t wait to find some amazing sushi restaurants. Whereas in Seoul, you could eat really amazing, authentic food for so cheap at the markets or find restaurants around that do affordable options. If you want to eat at slightly nicer restaurants in Seoul, then these will obviously cost you more, and are probably on par with Japan. Overall I would say I preferred the food in Japan (if you go to Kyoto, go to Chao Chao gyoza and find a back street restaurant to eat a ramen in Asakusa in Tokyo, two of my favourite meals on my travels).
Where To Stay
We stayed in hostels and a hotel in Japan, and a guesthouse in Seoul (after booking a hostel we could afford that ended up being extremely sketchy and dirty so we moved). Booking not very far in advance, as many backpackers do, Japan was definitely much easier to find nice hostels and hotels for an okay price, whereas we struggled to find somewhere in Seoul in a good location, in our budget. I have looked since and there are lots of affordable options in Seoul if you book far enough in advance.
In Seoul, I would recommend staying in Hongdae if you want to be around cool cafes and vintage shopping or Myeong-dong if you want to be near ots of the tourist attractions and the main shopping district. I would recommend Myeong-dong if it is your first time as it is very central and easy to walk around to lots of tourist spots, you can get the metro subway to Hongdae and spend the day there. The city is super easy to get around by public transport so I wouldn’t worry too much about where you stay in terms of accessibility to places, however, both these places felt safe and clean so I would recommend. To be fair, most of Seoul you will feel very safe in, and I would feel confident going there as a solo female.
Japan also felt extremely safe everywhere we went. In Tokyo, we stayed in a hostel in Akihabara, known as the electric town, it is definitely worth a visit at night and was a fine area to stay in, just a little out the centre. The main centre and touristy areas are Shinjuku and Shibuya, which if you can afford to stay there would be amazing as you won’t be restricted on getting the last train and can fully enjoy the nightlife, you also will spend less money getting around. But to be honest, it was very easy to get into central and around the city using public transport so again, the location shouldn’t matter too much, just do your research what it is like. In Kyoto, we stayed in Downtown, which I would recommend. When booking, I aimed to be walking distance to Nishiki market, so I would use this as a marker when booking your accommodation. I loved walking around the old streets around there and finding restaurants to eat in. In Osaka, we stayed near Dotonbori which I would recommend as we walked everywhere and the food is some of the best you’ll get in Japan.
Things to Do, Places to See
As I mentioned previously, my budget did have an impact on my judgement of which place I preferred. Seoul definitely had much more to do for free or a small price. We did SO much in Seoul and saw so much in just five days. You can explore the different districts each days, visit museums, exhibitions, palaces, temples and Hanok villages often for free if you pre-book or a small fee on the day, look around the shops, enjoy all the gorgeous cafés, walk around the parks, arcades, malls, library, mural village, gangnam statue and so many other attractions around the city.
In Japan, I did feel like I had to spend money to do anything which often wasn’t the cheapest but there is definitely things to do for cheap or free. There is also so much to do I didn’t get to fit everything in and feel I could have a completely different trip the second time around. In Tokyo, I loved Harajuku and all the shops there, it reminded me of Hongdae in Seoul. Again, you can explore the different districts and areas of the city on different days. In Kyoto, my highlight was the bamboo forest, my friend and I walked around it and then through a park, and we stumbled upon the most beautiful lake; I also loved all the old streets around Kiyomizudera Temple. I will be going to visit the bowing deers at Nara Park and actually walking the Fushimi Inari Shrine. Osaka is the place to eat as much as you can!
When I go back to both South Korea and Japan I want to explore new areas such a Jeju Island in South Korea, and Hiroshima and Okinawa in Japan, among others.
If like me, you love vintage and thrift shopping, then Seoul and Tokyo are the places for you. I genuinely cannot wait to go back with an empty suitcase to go thrifting. I really regret not buying more stuff while I was there, but I didn’t have the space :(. The prices are similar to the UK or cheaper, especially for designer and things on trend in the UK, in some shops. The two main places for vintage shopping are Hongdae in Seoul and Harajuku in Tokyo. Obviously Korea is famous for its skincare, so if like me you love it, make sure to stock up because it is much cheaper there than the UK. Uniqlo is a Japanese brand and in Ginza in Tokyo, there is the 12-storey flagship store, items are cheaper in Japan than the UK also. Both Tokyo and Seoul have large shopping districts for your main high street and designer brands if this is what you are into.
Therefore, from my experience, I did prefer South Korea (specifically Seoul), however, I do think Japan has a lot more to offer me on a second trip with a bigger budget, at the right time of year. I cannot wait to go back to both these places and they’re both in my top places I visited on my travels. I highly recommend both places and think you should all add to your travel list to experience it yourself.
If you would like an itinerary of what I did each day, in each place, let me know and I can add it below!