Japan vs South Korea: which to choose?

At the easterly side of East Asia, Japan and South Korea are perennial favorites of savvy travelers – and for good reason.

But if you had to choose just one (we’re sorry), which one would get the nod? Below, two of our regular writers on the region make the case for their favorite.

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It’s just Japan

Regular Japan visitor and rail expert John Walton expounds on the many ways – both fast and slow – to explore his favorite country to visit. His top Japanese journeys include following rural rail lines up to relaxing hot spring towns and exploring local foodways.

I’ve traveled in both Japan and South Korea, and both are wonderful. Yet the former is the country I return to again and again.

The world-famous Sagano Romantic Train running along the gorge formed by the Katsura River near Kyoto, Japan There’s no better way to get around Japan than via its incomparable train network © FiledIMAGE / Shutterstock

Japanese trains are irresistible

The incredible railway network that blankets all of Japan is one of the country’s top draws – and wins out over South Korea’s trains, which I’ve also taken. Even with its recent price hikes, the Japan Rail Pass offers a fabulous value for shuttling between cities at up to 200mph (320km/h), relaxing on a comfortable Limited Express, exploring tiny local branch lines or enjoying cultural experience on the special Joyful Train excursion services.

If I had to pick a few favorite train trips, I’d go with the Tohoku Shinkansen’s top-speed section north of Omiya, the single-car branch line between Abashiri and Kushiro in Hokkaido, the Limited Express Yakumo from Okayama to Matsue and the SL Ginga steam trains from Takasaki.

The torii gate at a shrine (with lettering that reads “Aso Shrine” in Japanese) framed by gingko trees in fall, Kyushu, JapanThanks to its range of climates and latitudes, Japan is beautiful all year long © TakaH / Shutterstock

A country for all seasons

Japan is several times the size of South Korea, and crosses a lot more climatic zones – from tropical Okinawa to the northern island of Hokkaido, snowy in winter but delightfully cool in summer. 

This means there’s not only simply more to do, but that there’s more variety, as well as a wider range of seasons of pleasant weather.

Since I’m no great fan of the rain and humidity of the tsuyu early-summer season, I’ll head north to Hokkaido then, where the temperatures are balmy but not muggy, to enjoy the freshest of fish in historical Hakodate. Come autumn, I love to head southwest to Kyūshū to extend short-sleeve weather: Kumamoto and Kagoshima are delightfully sunny and warm even into late November.

A view of Mt Fuji through the window of a Japanese inn, called a ryokan, on Lake Kawaguchi, JapanA traditional ryokan inn always offers a wonderful way to unwind © Leslie Taylor / Stocksy United

Relaxing ryokan and onsen culture

Formal appearances can be deceiving: Japanese people love to relax, and they’re great at it. They’re also excited to share their traditions with visitors. Traditional ryokan hotels, especially those with attached onsen hot-spring baths, provide the perfect way to build intensive relaxation time into your trip.

From the moment I arrive at a ryokan, my worries melt away and all I have to think about is what book I want to read sitting by the scenic window in my room. In a picturesque onsen town I fancy going for a little wander in a yukata robe as I ponder which of the often multiple onsen baths I want to slip into to soak away my cares (and relieve my sore traveler muscles). Gunma’s Kusatsu-Onsen is famous for a reason, yet tiny Bessho Onsen near Ueda in Nagano – up the side of a mountain reached by a tiny private railway – is my favorite hidden gem.

Thousands of onsen can be found around Japan, from the famously beautiful one in Matsuyama that inspired Miyazaki’s Spirited Away to the one inside the railway station at Echigo-Yuzawa. I love dipping my tired toes into one of the stone public foot baths that you’ll find in many tourist areas.

Skiing through the Japanese alps on a beautiful sunny day after heavy snowfallSkiers will find world-class trails in Japan © Felix Pope / Stocksy United

Hiking, skiing and nature

An antidote to a very urbanized society, Japan’s outdoor activities are many and widespread. Once you get out of Japan’s cities, the natural beauty is a stunning surprise – accessible by both Shinkansen and local trains. Hiking is incredibly popular, while so many people love skiing that there is a special seasonal spur of a Shinkansen bullet train line that goes directly to the Gala Yuzawa ski resort.

Don’t miss the gorgeous Sanriku Coast in the Tohoku region, with its rugged yet human-scaled peninsulas and promontories. Rugby-loving Kamaishi or sleepy Miyako, with its stunning Jōdogahama Beach, are great starting points for exploring this region. 

If you’re interested in it, Japan has it.

South Korea takes the crown

Tom O’Malley has ventured both north and south of Korea’s DMZ, and worked on the current editions of the Korea and Seoul Lonely Planet guidebooks. His favorite Korean dish is sundubu-jjigae (spicy tofu, pork and kimchi stew).

For this throw down of east versus slightly more east, I’m fighting in the K-corner – though in full disclosure I really love Japan, too. Still, in the spirit of partisanship, here’s my take on why South Korea deserves to be your next adventure destination. 

Lisa of Blackpink performs at the Coachella Stage during the 2023 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, Indio, California, USABlackpink is just one of the international pop sensations out of South Korea © Getty Images for Coachella

The “It” culture

First, a question: how far would you have gotten in Squid Game? I reckon I’d have made it past the terrifying giant doll and then died trying to nibble the dalgona (sugar candy biscuit) without it breaking. The fact that you almost certainly know what I’m on about illustrates something: Korean culture is crushing it right now. From Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite winning Best Picture at the Oscars to girl group Blackpink blowing up Coachella, the world can’t get enough of South Korea. It’s a phenomenon dubbed hallyu (the “Korean Wave”), and it’s been building for years. 

If you had the chance to time travel back to Belle Époque Paris, say, or London in the swinging ’60s, you’d go, right? Japan peaked in the 1980s before the bubble burst, yet South Korea’s golden age is happening right now. Why not go and be a part of it?

Stream Waterfall in Seograksan National Park, South KoreaNatural beauty abounds not far from South Korea’s bustling cities, such as at Seograksan National Park © Getty Images / iStockphoto

I appreciate that’s all a bit abstract, so let’s go head-to-head, starting with size. Japan is almost four times bigger than South Korea. And while there’s arguably more to see in Japan overall, that’s part of the problem. Itinerary planning is a headache, and getting around is expensive.

No such worries apply in South Korea, however. You can travel the length of the country – from the electric capital Seoul to the bustling southern port city of Busan – in just a couple of hours by high-speed train, with side forays to any number of incredible places, like the ancient tombs and temples of Gyeongju, or the dreamy peaks and waterfalls of Seograksan National Park. Or why not venture right to the edge of North Korea with a trip to the DMZ? 

A patron cuts galbi beef into smaller pieces as it cooks on a burner at his table at a Korean BBQ restaurantTableside grilling of galbi beef is one of the great pleasures of eating in South Korea © Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Fiery flavors

And then there’s the food, to my mind always one of travel’s chief pleasures. Japanese cuisine is elegant, subtle and often…well, raw. Are those really the best food adjectives? Personally, I want my meals to slap me around the face with flavor, heat and spice – and that’s exactly what you get from Korean cuisine.

Whether you’re cooking up galbi (beef short ribs) on a tabletop grill, going hard on chimaek (fried chicken and beer) or slurping down a fiery kimchi-and-pork stew, eating is a hearty, visceral pleasure in Korea. And a word about banchan, those little side dishes of delicious treats you get with most meals: they’re both free and refillable. What’s not to love?

A vendor prepares food at a market in Seoul, South KoreaSouth Korean food is famously bold and exciting © AFP via Getty Images

Delightful people

A final word has to go to the true highlight of any trip to South Korea: the Korean people themselves. It’s as if hospitality, helpfulness and respect are hard-wired into their DNA. You can guarantee that as you travel through the country, you’ll have encounters with locals that will leave you feeling that little bit more positive about this planet we all share.

Sure, it could happen in Japan as well, but they’re probably too busy reading manga.

South Korea for the win.


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