Asia Japan opinion travel

Korea vs. Japan: My Experience With Both Countries


I was chatting with a friend the other day, who I met while teaching in South Korea, about some of the differences we noticed between Korea and Japan. Mind you, everyone has different experiences while abroad, and these are not blanket statements, just my opinions based on my experiences. While I lived in Korea for 2.5 years, I was only in Osaka, Japan for about a week. Obviously any place is different when you’re on vacation visiting, as opposed to living there. Once again, this isn’t to make one country look better or worse than another, these are just my observations.

One big difference that I noticed between the two, was that things were more orderly in Japan. For example, everyone walked on the same side of the street, stood to one side of escalators so that those who wanted to walk up could. There was no rush to get off of the subway, people waited until the subway stopped before getting up to walk off, and those waiting to get on, lined up, and waited for everyone to get off before getting on.

In Korea it was quite the opposite. Depending on the time of day, things can be very chaotic getting onto or off of a subway. Trust me, that was my main mode of transportation while I lived there, and I have spent many hours on Korea’s subway lines! I’ve been pushed and shoved by many a ajumma/ajusshi, (older woman/man) while getting off or onto a subway, and even while standing on a subway. People usually begin to crowd around the door way before the subway stops, sometimes pushing each other to get off, all the while those waiting to get on, are at the same time fighting their way through. At peak times, people do line up to wait for the subway, however don’t be surprised if someone runs to get in front of you. The same goes for seats. During peak times, people will literally shove you out of the way if it means they can grab a seat. I’ve even seen women through their purses onto an empty seat! On the other hand, I have had an ajumma/ajusshi push me into an open seat that I hadn’t seen before someone else got it, so that’s nice, right?

Street near one of my schools that I walked to get to and from the subway station.

Another stark contrast between the two countries that I noticed, was that while in Japan, the Japanese people did not seem to care that I was there. Despite living in the second largest city in Korea, I constantly attracted attention because I was an obvious foreigner. People would oftentimes sneak photos/video of me, and I was always aware that I was utterly and completely different. While in Osaka, I was mostly out and about, and didn’t really notice people staring at me, they didn’t care when I walked into a store, or onto the subway. Folks were generally unconcerned with my presence, which felt great! Maybe things would have been different in the countryside, but in Osaka, I didn’t feel awkward. Another difference that I noticed, was how people approached me. I had several Japanese people approach me, and continue to speak Japanese to me, (despite me flailing my arms, and saying “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Japanese” like a deer in headlights). In Korea, it was a mixed bag, but many would speak English to me, even when I responded in Korean. This may also be due to the fact that I was the only English speaking foreigner in my neighborhood for the majority of my time there. I have friends that lived closer to universities, and Koreans expected them to know Korean more. Japan does have a longer history with allowing foreigners into their country, and there are more Japanese speaking foreigners than in Korea at the moment, so it makes sense as to why Japanese people spoke to me in Japanese.

Life was more expensive than in Korea. Food, transportation, attractions, etc. were way more expensive in Japan. I lived pretty good life on my teacher’s salary in Korea, but Japan can burn a hole in your pocket if you’re not careful to budget.

One of the last major differences that I noticed, was transportation. Obviously both countries have subways, trains, buses, and people drive personal cars, however more people rode bikes in Japan, whereas motorcycles/auto bikes were more common in Korea. The airbnb that I stayed in had a mall across the street, and there was an entire large parking area specifically for bikes. They were everywhere! I can’t ride a bike, ( I know, I know) but if I could, that would have been one cool way to see the city! There are bike lanes, and everyone follows which way they should go. In Korea, I would oftentimes have motorized bikes zoom past me as I walked on the sidewalk, (most food delivery is done this way). Believe it or not, I actually got used to it, and over time wasn’t bothered by it at all.

Parking garage for bikes at a mall.

*One minor last thing to note, driving is done on the left in Japan, and on the right in Korea.

These are just some of the major differences that I noticed during my short stay in Osaka. I did feel more at peace in going from Korea to Japan, and appreciated the order of how things went, but that’s just my personality!

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