When the topic of Korea vs Japan comes up, you might assume the discussion is historical, political or even racial—that’s not what this post is about. Rather, I’m going to explore the key differences between these two amazing countries where travelers are concerned, and help you decide which is best to visit.
Some of these will be practical in nature, whether you’re asking “is Japan expensive?” (either in comparison to South Korea, or as a standalone question), or want to know how far English will get you in either country (Spoiler alert: not very!).
I’ll also be exploring the difference between Japan and Korea in a more esoteric sense, weaving in stories from my two dozen combined trips to the two countries to entertain you a bit as you make your decision. (Assuming you don’t simply decide to extend your trip and visit both!)
NOTE: Japan’s border is totally closed to foreign visitors as of March 2021, while everyone who enters Korea must submit to a mandatory 14-day quarantine. I’ll be updating this post as both countries’ travel restrictions evolve (and, eventually, loosen).
My Own Experience with Korea vs Japan
Before my first trip to Korea, a well-meaning friend of mine told me that “Korea is the poor man’s Japan” (which, side note, is a ridiculous statement, since Korea is at least as expensive as Japan—but I digress). I landed in Seoul the first time very much in love with Japan and believing Korea couldn’t possible measure up; this prophecy was largely self-fulfilling.
My views have moderated as I’ve traveled in Korea more, but I still wouldn’t say that the question of Japan vs South Korea travel is a draw. Japan is still a far superior country for travelers in my opinion, even if South Korea has more redeeming factors (and, to be sure, a slightly wider array of destinations and experiences) than I initially gave the country credit for.
Key Ways to Compare Korea vs Japan
Japanese Culture vs Korean Culture
Let’s be clear: A post on a travel blog is not the proper venue to have a sophisticated discussion of Korea vs Japan culture. However, from practices like the Japanese tea ceremony and the Korean hanbok costume, to the way people in Japan and Korea welcome strangers (or don’t), I prefer Japanese culture in every conceivable way. One (possible under the influence of my aforementioned) friend I wholly believed that the entire of Korean culture was a rip-off of Japan’s (and China’s), though I’ve somewhat walked that back in recent years.
Korean Food vs Japanese Food
Whether you travel from South Korea to Japan or vice-versa, you’re in for a culinary treat. Largely, I would say that Japan’s cuisine is more diverse, ranging from delicate dishes like sushi and sashimi to down-home comfort food like tonkatsu fried pork cutlet and ramen noodle soup. Korean food has some range too (beyond kimchi and bibimbap, you can enjoy kimbap rolls and dakgangjeong fried chicken), but I still give the nod to Japan overall in this category.
Destinations in Korea and Japan
Comparing Korea or Japan in terms of destinations (and experiences), there is simply no contest: Japan wins hands down! Japan destinations, for example, span several exciting regions: Tohoku, Kanto, Chubu, Kansai and Chugoku; as well as the islands of Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku; and the Okinawa archipelago. While I’ve slowly come to realize that Korea is more than just Seoul and Busan as time has passed, it’s just got nothing on Japan in the variety department.
Cost of Travel in Japan vs Korea
Is Korea expensive? Of course it is—and so is Japan. However, while prices of some things like city hotels (say, Tokyo’s Hotel Felice Akasaka and Makers Hotel Seoul) tend to be pretty congruent, I would generally say that Korea is slightly cheaper. Korea’s smaller cities and towns, for example, are significantly cheaper than major metro areas; this is not the case in Japan. On the other hand, Korea’s paltry rail pass falls far short of the savings offered by the Japan Rail Pass.
Speaking English in Korea vs Japan
If you can’t manage to fit in a tour to Japan and Korea and have to choose between the two countries, allow me to spoil something rather large: The citizens of both countries are pretty poor at speaking English; this truth seems to cut across education levels.How Long to Spend in Japan and Korea
An important practical element of the discussion of Korea vs Japan travel is how long to spend in each. Japan has significantly more regions (which are significantly more interesting, and have many more destinations within them) than Korea—your trips to Japan will be longer than those to Korea out of sheer necessity.
In general, I would say that the shortest itinerary you can get away with for your first trip is 3 weeks in Japan vs about a 10 days in Korea itinerary. Naturally, this element of Japan vs Korea travel becomes less important if you’ve already visited either country, or if you’re 100% sure you’ll be able to return to either (or both) in the future.
Plan Your Trips to Korea and Japan
Regardless of what you end up deciding RE: Japan or Korea travel (i.e. whether to visit one country or both, at what time of year and for how long), planning your trip can be a whole other animal. This is at once a matter of nuts and bolts (which cities and regions in Japan do you visit, and how do you structure your food trip to Korea) as it is an esoteric question: How do you want to feel when you step back on the plane to go home, and how do you translate that into an itinerary?
Other FAQ About Korea vs. Japan
How is Korea different from Japan?
The main difference between Korea vs Japan, in my opinion, is that technology is slightly more important than tradition in Korea, while slightly less so in Japan. Additionally, while both Korea and Japan are relatively xenophobic countries, I feel that the Japanese tend to tolerate foreigners better, at least in public.
Is Japan richer than Korea?
Although Japan has a higher GDP (and GDP per capita) than Korea, I don’t necessarily think that Japan feels richer than Korea in reality. There’s a certain austere manner to the Japanese, and a very profound level of dilapidation in some more rural prefectures, even in smaller cities—you don’t see this in Korea. This isn’t as obvious in Korea vs Japan travel, of course, as it is if you live in either country.
Is South Korea cheaper than Japan?
Honestly, this depends on which aspect of Japan vs Korea travel you’re talking about! While hotels in Korea are perhaps cheaper than those in Japan on an absolute basis, I think the value of Japanese hotels (at least in major cities) is better. Korea is cheaper than Japan, but Japan offers more richness as a travel destination.
The Bottom Line
Japan or Korea—which is better for holiday? The question of South Korea vs Japan travel is a contentious one—even before broaching the topic of travel, and to say nothing of the Seoul vs Tokyo debate. But while both of these countries offer travelers a great deal of return-on-investment, they’re not the same, whether because of practical factors like the cost of travel in either, or the historical and cultural differences that underlie both ancient and modern tensions between their people. Taking a short trip to Asia, but want to squeeze Korea and Japan into your itinerary? Hire me as your Travel Coach!