Tokyo Or Seoul? Which Asian Capital Should I Visit?

Tokyo or Seoul
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Tokyo or Seoul is a choice between two of the biggest Asian metropolises out there. On the one hand you have the sprawling capital of Japan, one of the largest cities on the planet and a place of sizzling udon noodle joints and twinkling neon lights. Then there’s Seoul, a design-centric modern megalopolis with K-Pop music and some sobering history up its sleeve.

Deciding between these two destinations isn’t going to be easy. Each has bucket-list draws and attractions, taste-bud-tingling food, and hotels that you’ll be writing home about from the moment you check in. But never fear: We’re here to help…

Yep, this guide to Tokyo and Seoul will peer into the hearts of both capital cities to help you settle on the top choice for your travels in the coming season. It deals with seven key aspects of both places, from how easy it is to get there to the tempting culinary scene to the nightlife offering on the ground. Let’s begin…

Tokyo or Seoul for getting there?

Tokyo airport
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Neither of these spots is going to be a chore to reach. They are both considered hubs of East Asia and are linked to places all around the world.

Let’s begin with Tokyo. Two massive international airports mean that there’s a whole sushi platter’s worth of flights heading this way. Most will go to the colossal Narita Airport, but it’s also possible to get connections (especially low-cost links from Southeast Asia and China) heading to Haneda Airport. It would be impossible to list all the arrivals but suffice to say there are daily trans-Pacific links from the US West Coast, loads of options in from the hubs of the Middle East, and even direct connections from Europe. Fast trains or monorails connect the terminals to the city in as little as 15 minutes, too.

Seoul’s answer to Tokyo’s duo of big air hubs is Incheon International Airport (ICN). It dominates its own island – Yeongjong Island – to the west of the main center. It takes about an hour to get there on the high-speed AREX trains. Again, there’s no shortage of flight connections heading to Seoul’s big port. A mega 71 million passengers pass through the concourses each year, which actually is still a touch less than Japan’s two see. But all the big names fly in, including Air France from Paris, Qantas from Sydney, and United Airlines from San Fran to name just three.

Winner: Draw. Both towns are exceptionally well connected to the rest of the world by the air.

Tokyo or Seoul for cost and budget?

Seoul
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Seoul is considered one of the best-bargain capitals in East Asia. It’s WAY cheaper than its Japanese compadre, with average estimations of outgoings on cost collators like Budget Your Trip coming in at around the $96 per day mark. Compare that to the estimated $160 per day that globetrotters would need to fork out in Tokyo, a city where hotels cost around about $75 a night on average compared to Seoul’s $49, and where a coffee in an international chain will be about $2.40 to Seoul’s $1.79.

Of course, it’s important not to get too hooked up on the budget calculations if you have your heart set on seeing Tokyo. It is possible to do this town on the cheap, spending less than $90 per day. You can skip the fancy ryokan hotels for pod hostels, for example, and eat at street-food vendors. That said, going budget in Seoul means saving even more, bringing the average cost down to the region of $60 a day.

 Winner: Seoul is the budget traveler’s choice.

Tokyo or Seoul for things to do and see?

Tokyo skyline
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Where to start? Tokyo is a town where you’ll be gasping and gawping at every turn. Mainstay areas include the iconic Shibuya Crossing, where thousands of people move across the streets below gleaming neon signs every minute, and the serene Meiji Jingu, which is just about the opposite, what with its calming Shinto gardens and religious artifacts. The Edo-Tokyo Museum is a must for anyone interested in the history of the nation. There are cherry blossoms and walking trails in the Ueno Park. Ginza is a whole district for shoppers and diners. It really is endless here.

But it’s a similar story in Seoul. Start at the soaring N Seoul Tower for views of the metropolis. Then, dive into the National Museum of Korea to learn all about the cultures of the Korean people. A glimpse of the majestic Gyeongbokgung Palace is a must for a taste of the grand Joseon past of the city. Shopping and dining in Itaewon are great, too, so is the food-packed Gwangjang Market with its stinky tofu and stir fries. Nope, there’s no getting bored in this capital either.

Winner: Probably Tokyo, but only just.

Tokyo or Seoul for nightlife?

Tokyo nightlife
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Both of these Asian capitals are known for their heady after-dark scenes. In Tokyo, things buzz with life in the tight-knit lanes of Kabukicho, the unofficial red-light district. That’s a land of seedy beer bars and gritty music dives. Nearby, the so-called Golden Gai of Shinjuku has a whopping 200 venues, all weird and wonderful, from doctor’s themed drinking holes to places based on Manga comics. Ginza is the spot to be for chicer nightlife, in the form of noir cocktail outlets and fine dining, but there’s also Roppongi, a more business-minded area with pubs and clubs aplenty.

Seoul probably stays up the later of the two. It’s a town that hardly sleeps a wink on the weekends. There’s karaoke and disco dance bars, big K-Pop halls and classic pubs alike in these parts. The areas that really stand out are the student-favorite of Hongdae, where you’ll party until sunup with youngsters fresh out of the lecture halls, and the more stylo district of Cheongdam-dong.

Winner: We think Seoul wins this one.

Tokyo or Seoul for hotels?

A bed in a hotel room in Seoul
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Tokyo has some of the crème-de-la-crème of Asian hotels. As a big global city, it hosts five-star business scrapers and chic brand names alike. But there are also some more local digs, which come in the form of traditional ryokan (ancient-style inns that date from the long-forgotten past of Japan) and pod hostels (strange but cheap digs where guests live in a lockable pod for the night). Overall, we’d say the best places to look for stays are near Ginza, in stylish Chiyoda, and lively Shinjuku. Here are some of the best options:

  • Oakwood Premier Tokyo ($$$) – Luxurious serviced apartments that are great for business travelers, with sweeping city views and spacious interiors.
  • Ryokan Sansuiso ($-$$) – It’s not in the center but not too far, though this old-school ryokan gives a taste of the Tokyo of yesteryear.
  • Turn Table ($) – A clean and well-rated hostel with pod-style curtain beds and a lovely café out front.

Seoul doesn’t quite have the same overload of hotels. It can match Tokyo’s 3,100 hotel options with its own 630 or so. But there’s still a good range, especially on the upscale end of the spectrum. On top of that, you should find that most hotels in Seoul cluster around the central areas of the city, making it easier to get back and forth to the main sights, so you don’t have to pay too much attention to where to stay. Here’s a look at some of the top options in the Korean capital:

  • Signiel Seoul ($$$) – This sparkling, steel-clad mass of a hotel is a real doozy for luxury lovers, offering noir interior design, a pool, and on-site boutiques.
  • Four Seasons Hotel Seoul ($$$) – You get five dining options and a fully fledged fitness center at this incredible hotel.
  • Myeongdong Rooftop Hostel ($) – The budget option, this hostel has a sun-kissed roof terrace that’s great for meeting other travelers.

Winner: Tokyo – there are way more hotels on offer overall.

Tokyo or Seoul for day trips?

Mount Fuji
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The most popular day trip from Seoul has to be out to the so-called DMZ, the demilitarized zone that lies between North and South Korea. It’s only 53 kilometers to the north of the capital, so not hard to reach, but you HAVE to book onto an organized group to get there since solo travelers aren’t allowed access. Nature lovers have other places. There’s Yeongjong Island, a home of hot springs and beaches, or the leafy Bukhansan Songchu Valley, where there’s waterfalls and hiking trails.

Travelers to Tokyo are often drawn by the ever-present outline of a certain Mount Fuji on the horizon. The best views of that forever-snow-dusted peak are on offer at nearby Lake Ashinoko in Hakone, which also boasts hot springs and woodland walks. The selections of Shinto temples at Kamakura also make pretty fantastic day tripping, but families are sure to prefer the fairy-tale delights of the Tokyo Disney Resort. Shogun fanatics shouldn’t miss Ashikaga, the home of arguably the most famous clan of the lot.

Winner: Tokyo. Mount Fuji beats the DMZ for us.

Tokyo or Seoul for food?

Korean food
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We simply can’t pick a winner on the food front. Sorry, but this is too much about personal taste. Yes, Japanese cooking is definitely the more famous, and you’ll sample more sushi, sashimi, and sake than you can handle on a trip to the capital. But Korean cooking is a real journey for the senses, offering umami hits and pungent ammonia scents with fresh herbs and sizzling BBQ on top.

The one thing that you absolutely must sample in Seoul is kimchi. That shouldn’t be hard since the fermented, spicy cabbage is served as a side with pretty much everything. Then there’s the intriguing mix of veg and rice and chili sauce that is the bibimbap bowl, along with spicy red rice cakes that are a sort of Korean answer to pasta.

In Tokyo, you can look forward to a medley of tempura veg and prawns, dipping noodles with tangy soy and fish broths, udon in thick chili sauces, the fish-and-rice combo dishes of fukagawa-meshi, and more sushi than you can handle. It’s not for nothing that the Japanese capital is considered one of the culinary centers of the globe, even if having a bit of cash to spend helps with sampling the cream of the crop!

Winner: Draw. Foodies will be in heaven in both spots!

Tokyo or Seoul? Our conclusion

Tokyo or Seoul? That’s a hard choice. Both towns deserve a place on any city slicker’s itinerary in the coming years. Seoul for its sizzling BBQ foods, its raucous nightlife scene, and fascinating DMZ. Tokyo for its sushi and buzzy districts of Shinto shrines, not to mention adventures to the base of Mount Fuji. Overall, we’d say that nightlife lovers and budget-conscious travelers should pick the capital of Korea, but those wanting fancy hotels and never-forget-me day trips should pick Japan’s biggest city.

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Joe has been a freelance travel writer for over nine years. His writing and roaming have taken him from the colonial towns of Mexico to the chowks of Mumbai to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not putting together the next epic blog on the best Greek islands or ski fields in France, you can usually find him surfing or hiking – his two top hobbies.