Author: Brandon Polinski
Location: Seoul, South Korea
I recently went to the capital of South Korea for three days. I went by myself, since most people who had interest had either gone during fall break when I was in Tokyo or were starting to run out of money. I’m honestly glad, because I have been too dependent on others when it comes to traveling, so this was a good opportunity for me. I learned a lot about another country I have been interested in, and a future trip of a longer duration is certainly on the table.
Seoul is about a two-hour flight from Kansai International Airport. Currently, partially due to strained relations between Korea and Japan, flights are also very cheap. I was able to get a round trip for approximately 100 USD. This was almost half as much as the cost of flying to Tokyo.
What did I think? I have a lot of thoughts. I had no experience in Korean culture or language, so this was probably the steepest learning curve I’ve ever had to adjust to in the shortest amount of time. Thankfully, in terms of infrastructure South Korean public transportation is functionally the same as it is in Japan. There are a few differences to keep in mind when it comes to navigating the stations, but if you can get around Japan without getting lost, the same will go for South Korea.
Everything else was much more difficult and uncomfortable. I want to avoid generalizing, since I was just in a small part of a country for a very short amount of time, but I want to talk about what I observed.
To begin, this really drove home what draws me to Japan. Not the food, or the cool shiny things, or even the pop culture, but the people. At least to me, there is a level of kindness and hospitality among the Japanese people that I have not experienced anywhere else, not America, and certainly not South Korea.
That’s not to say there are not many, many kind people in all countries. When I arrived in South Korea, without me asking, a man helped direct me to the correct train line and then gave me free food and his contact card. There are stand-out individuals everywhere. The difference is cultural. There is a warmness that permeates Japanese culture. I can count my negative experiences with Japanese people on one hand.
It is true that much of that perceived warmness is often part of an act or service (I do love Japanese service workers though :)) and does not always reflect the true feelings of the Japanese. However, being in Japan as a tourist or visitor, (Especially a western one) feels more comfortable, and arguably that is what matters for a temporary stay. Seoul is a beautiful city, in some ways I liked it more than Tokyo. Cutting edge technology, massive landmarks, but also wisely designed and spacious streets. Aside from the train stations during rush hour, I never felt claustrophobic even though Seoul has an even higher population density than Tokyo. But I felt a certain level of coldness among the residents. Not an aggressive rudeness like you find might in America or elsewhere, but it was there, and it was uncomfortable. Incidentally, Seoul is the largest city in South Korea and one of the largest in the world (It is bigger than New York!), but I noticed far less foreigners there than many smaller cities I have been to in Japan. There was a real feeling of isolation, like nothing I had ever felt before.
Despite some of my discomforts, I enjoyed Seoul. South Korea is without a doubt one of the best foreign destinations for solo travelers, thanks to its public transportation and a high level of safety that is comparable to Japan. For a still very inexperienced traveler, it was a very safe bet. I am glad I did this, things in my life that used to seem difficult or intimidating certainly seem much less so now. When I return, I will try to have learned some basic phrases, see if I can reach a higher level of understanding of the culture, and maybe break down more barriers between myself and the locals.