I’ve lived in NYC for the past year — moved here after years in Philly and after growing up in a rural community a few hours west of there. My wife is South Korean and last week concluded my second trip to the suburbs of Seoul to visit her family. We finished up that trip with a week in Tokyo.
Long a mecha and Godzilla fan, I was struck by a city not significantly more modern, or significantly more “Eastern”, than NYC. In contrast, the lesser known Seoul is more modern than both cities and shares as much “Eastern” vibe as Tokyo.
I’d go so far as to say that Seoul is the most livable of the three for anyone of a similar background. There are a few concrete areas that led me to this including transportation, apartments, WiFi/cafes, food, and language.
I'll conclude with a few tourist recommendations and a list of books to read on South Korea and Japan if you share my enthusiasm for comparing life in different cities.
NYC is one of the few cities in the world with a subway that runs 24/7. Tokyo and Seoul do not share this trait despite being many decades newer. (Tokyo and Seoul were heavily damaged during World War II and the Korean War, respectively.) And despite being built later, Tokyo subway cars are even less wide than NYC subway cars (~8.2ft vs. ~8.5ft).
In contrast, Seoul subway cars are ~10.2ft wide. The difference may seem slight but it is noticeable during rush hour when in Seoul there is space for four people to stand in the aisle versus room for perhaps two in a Tokyo or NYC subway car.
Seoul subway car, source: Travel Blog
The Seoul subway system is also the most advanced in terms of safety. All stations have a floor-to-ceiling barrier with doors that only open when a train arrives. Most stations in Tokyo have a ~3ft tall barrier that does the same, though some stations have no barrier. In NYC there are no barriers anywhere.
Concerning innovation, Seoul and Tokyo both have multiple driverless subway lines whereas NYC has none. But in terms of complexity the NYC subway is the simplest because you pay only once. Seoul and Tokyo subways are slightly more complex in that you swipe your card when you enter and exit (or transfer).
It was jarring to be greeted by the very 90s, vaguely British Toyota Crown taxi cabs that dominate the streets of Tokyo.
Source: Phil Eaton
These cabs have no integrated navigation unit but a modern unit was typically mechanically attached. We saw a few of the recently approved Toyota JPN Taxi, but they only account for around 10 percent of cabs. (The integrated navigation is massive, perhaps 10-inch screens.) In contrast, Seoul has a variety of modern cabs all with integrated navigation — the most common of which is the Hyundai Sonata.
Source: The Seoul Guide
Although Japanese car companies pioneered integrated navigation in the 90s, it appears to have been the standard for South Korean car companies for the past 10-20 years.
And then there’s NYC with its primary mix of Crown Victorias and Priuses with multiple 4-inch smartphones mechanically attached for navigation.
Source: New York Post
South Korea has no concept of the suburb oriented around single-family houses. Drive an hour or two out from Seoul or Busan and see the same massive, modern apartment complexes that are found in the city center. After that it's the stark farms of Kansas. Japan appears more like the US in that the city graduates steadily to suburb and farm.
Apartments in Seoul, source: Japan Times
In general, buildings in South Korea are fairly homogeneous. Even the downtown areas of Seoul have little architectural creativity. Tokyo and NYC are both diverse in building styles and sizes. However, NYC takes the cake for ubiquity of massive towers. In fact, the first time my South Korean father-in-law visited Manhattan he was blown away by this mass.
New York City, source: Wikipedia
The most popular neighborhoods in Tokyo seem more developed than their Seoul counterparts, the mass of stores and crowds extends further. And while the average age of buildings in Tokyo seems younger than the average age of buildings throughout Seoul (including less desirable areas), the developed areas (including buildings and streets) of Seoul are significantly cleaner and more modern. In contrast, and on average, Tokyo buildings seem as old as NYC buildings.
Tokyo, source: Fodors
Air quality in NYC and Tokyo is high, pollution is low. But in recent times, air quality in Seoul has deteriorated with dangerous levels of fine dust from factories in South Korea and China. It is not clear when or how the South Korean government will address this.
My idea of a good cafe is a decent ratio of seats to traffic, available electrical outlets, and decent WiFi. NYC and Tokyo have some similarities: chain coffee shops are larger and non-chains are often pretty small. Tokyo differs from NYC in that there are few electrical outlets and in the existence of interior smoking sections. (Tokyo bans smoking while walking but designates areas like parks or inner rooms in restaurants or cafes.)
But the WiFi in Tokyo is abysmal. Many cafes do not have it (though the trend is to provide) and even the chains that do provide it have terrible speeds reaching peaks of 5Mbps down. In NYC WiFi is available near ~20Mbps down at most chains and ~5Mpbs at smaller non-chains.
In contrast, South Korea is the jewel of cafe culture. Unlike how in the US coffee shop size decreases as population increases, coffee shop sizes in South Korea are oddly enormous everywhere. South Korea is rich with local shops, domestic chains (including the exported Paris Baguette and Tous Les Jours), and foreign chains (South Korea has the highest number of Starbucks Reserve stores per capita of any country).
Starbucks Reserve in Seoul, source: Pulse News
From Jeju Island to Seoul we never worried about a seat or an outlet at a cafe. Furthermore, the WiFi in South Korea is incredible. My tech-hopeless in-law’s basic internet plan got 80Mbps down and the small cafes near their apartment got at least 40Mbps down.
NYC falls closer to Seoul in terms of ubiquity and speed of WiFi and has the added benefit of fast city-provided, outdoor WiFi surprisingly fast and available throughout the city. NYC is much worse in terms of daylight. Most cafes close between 8-10pm whereas cafes in Seoul and Tokyo easily stay open past 11pm.
It’s not exactly fair to exclude internet cafes, prevalent in both Seoul and Tokyo (oddly even NYC has a few). At an internet cafe in Tokyo you can expect abundant outlets and excellent WiFi (I saw peaks of 40Mbps down). I did not visit an internet cafe in Seoul but I expect it to be similar. In both Seoul and Tokyo you can easily find 24/7 service (with showers!?).
I did not include internet cafes above because I find them slightly less convenient for tourists. Though credit is due: unlike American Chinatown internet cafes, the ones we visited in Tokyo were very clean, spacious and warm.
Internet cafe in Shinjuku, source: Rakutama
Dining out in NYC is similar in cost to other major US cities. The quality is usually pretty good. Tokyo was about as expensive as food in NYC and generally as high quality. For instance, most dinners in NYC and Tokyo cost about $40-60 for two people. In contrast, most entrees in Seoul are sold for two and the dinner in total was often about $20-40. Restaurants on average seemed to be lower quality in Seoul compared to Tokyo and New York, but there are still more than enough high quality options.
I am biased having a better knowledge of Korean than Japanese and a South Korean partner to fall back on. But I believe South Korea is the more friendly place for an English speaker in that it is more dedicated to providing English translations and that the written language is simpler. In both cities the penetration of English-speaking natives (and quality of speech and comprehension) is indistinguishable and decent.
To the first point, even the oddest locations and obscure signage had English translations in South Korea (not just Seoul) — not so even within Tokyo.
To the second point, Japanese has three writing systems (kanji, hiragana, and katakana). Kanji (characters originating from Chinese) cannot be replaced in writing by phonetic counterparts in hiragana or katakana. So you have little choice but to memorize all important characters, disregarding the fact that many characters can be broken down. Then you must also memorize the alphabetic systems of hiragana and katakana.
In contrast, Korean has two writing systems (hangul and hanja) where hanja (characters originating from Chinese) is primarily used in formal settings (government forms, academic books, etc.) and can be replaced with the phonetic equivalent in hangul.
This makes it much simpler to memorize and read Korean compared to Japanese.
For New Yorkers, don’t stay in the recommended areas of Shinjuku/Shibuya/Roppongi unless you’re the type who’d enjoy staying around Times Square. These three areas of Tokyo are just as obnoxious albeit much safer. I also don’t recommend the Harajuku area; it is extra. There’s no real equivalent level of crazy in Seoul although Hongdae comes close.
In a future Tokyo trip I’d stick to the Meguro Station area including Ebisu and Daikanyama. They are beautiful, quiet neighborhoods with lots of restaurants and cafes beside the Meguro river. Areas along the Sumida River are also beautiful and quiet. Ginza/Tokyo Station is also a fun-but-not-obnoxious area to visit.
Ebisu, source: Homeaway
I cannot recommend the Edo-Tokyo Museum enough, it is the best city museum I've visited. Tsukiji is also a must see, reminding me how much I miss going to Reading Terminal Market each weekend in Philly.
In Seoul I’d recommend Yeonnam-Dong, Itaewon (which is much nicer than it’s made out to be), and Gwanghwamun. Mapo-Gu in general is a great region of Gangbuk as is the area below it (near Yeouido) in Gangnam.
Yeonnam-Dong, source: Phil Eaton
I recommend visiting the National Museum of Korea in Seoul as well as Hangang Park and Gyeongui Line Forest Park. The areas around the Tancheon stream flowing South to Bundang are also beautiful.
Tancheon near Bundang, source: Misadventures of an Awkward American
I came to Tokyo with the expectation of a highly modern city fused with Eastern culture. But it is difficult to see many ways it is ahead of NYC technically and it is very similar to NYC culturally. In some ways Tokyo even seems a little stuck in the past or just... off. Why are all vending machines [e.g. for tickets, ordering food, etc.] mechanical and not touch screens? The National Museum of Science is awfully old and ugly, the National Diet Building the same.
So on the one hand I’d like to let the next person down lightly on the excitement of Japan. It is a world-class city with great restaurants, live music and refined culture but all-in-all very similar to NYC. On the other hand I recommend Seoul for a cheaper, cleaner, more English-speaker friendly, and genuinely novel city with splashes of "Eastern" romantic elements like Tokyo.
Cherry blossoms in Seoul, source: English Spectrum
MITI and the Japanese Miracle: The Growth of Industrial Policy, 1925-1975 is an excellent, albeit somewhat disputed introduction to the modern Japanese economy.
Asia’s Next Giant: South Korea and Late Industrialization is a similar high-quality introduction to the South Korean economy.
If you’re only familiar with US/Canadian companies or other “pure” market economies these two books are a great read on different, challenging styles of government policy, corporate structure, and life.
P.s. I’m looking for book recommendations on the last 20 years of economic/political history in Japan and South Korean and on the last 100 years of economic/political history in the US and NYC.