I’ve lived in Tokyo for 13 months, and now I’ve been living in Seoul for almost 9 months. My friends ask me, “Which one do you like better?” or “What are some differences?” So when I started thinking, the list got really long. I could talk about the bus system, customer service, smokers, bakery, recycling system, unique cafes, karaoke machine, fast food, and vending machines, but this time I will just focus on talking about the railway and subway.
Seoul is more affordable! Subway rides are at the most around 1.40 USD, even for places that are more than an hour away. But in Tokyo, traveling the same one hour distance could cost almost 5.00 USD.
One of the few ways to save transportation money in Japan is to get a discounted 6-month pass for a route that you always use, for example from home to work. Even though it’s a nice discount, it’s still expensive. Thank you Seoul for cheap transportation fees.
Out of the many subway fare cards in Japan, Suica is the most commonly used card in Tokyo. You can charge this card with cash at every station, or link it to your bank account. These cards can also be used for the bus or tram, or to purchase items in convenience stores and any store linked to the station.
In Korea, everyone uses the T-money card. The system is almost the same as the Suica, but they come in different forms. Some have it in a key chain, most have a card, and some cards are linked to bank accounts.
This is a tie! It’s so great that with these cards you don’t have to purchase subway tickets for every ride.
The railway and subway system in Tokyo is managed by multiple companies. It’s sometimes troublesome when you’re asking for directions at the subway, and they only show you how to travel through their company’s stations, instead of the most convenient way. Seoul’s subway is also managed by multiple companies, but it’s much easier to navigate between different lines. Seoul is the winner!
Seoul and Tokyo usually has English announcements. In busier stations they have Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and English. Many of the signs are written in multiple languages, which is cool because it sometimes helps you learn some new vocabulary. Both countries are still inconvenient when it comes to emergencies, because those announcements are only in the native language.
In both cities, there are those old and dirty stations, and the new and clean stations. But there might be a greater percentage of new stations in Seoul. Overall cleanliness: a tie. Both are usually clean.
Because Seoul is relatively new, they have more stations that have clear doors that makes it impossible to attempt any suicide jumps. Tokyo is working on building more of those doors, but there are just too many old stations, so it’ll probably take several years until every station becomes more safe.
Tokyo is much more strict about being on time. They run on a set schedule and they make an announcement to apologize if they are one minute late. Seoul is not as specific about time. Even if you look up the times on an app beforehand, they are most likely to be off by 2-3 minutes. Or even worse at smaller stations. Tokyo wins this time.
Korea has the cushion seats or the cold metal seats, and Japan has the soft cushion seats. In the winter, Korea’s subway seats get heated from the bottom, and Japan’s is usually from the air conditioner at the ceiling.
Seats for the disabled, pregnant women, and elderly are provided in both. The only difference is how people treat those seats. In Japan, anyone can sit there, and they are just expected to give up their seats for those in need. But in Korea, those seats are left empty no matter how full the train may be. If you’re young, it’s best to just avoid those seats unless you are horribly ill.
There is too much advertisement in Japanese trains. They’re fun to see sometimes especially if your favorite celebrity is there, but they get excessive. On the wall/doors/handrail/window, posters hanging from the ceiling, or playing on the TV. It’s almost like the only ad-less space is the ceiling, floor, and seats. Compared to that, Seoul’s ads are minimal.
But both cities have big advertisement posters outside the train and within the station. In Tokyo, it’s used to promote new music albums, magazines, or shopping malls. In Seoul, I see many ads for plastic surgery clinics. haha. Those before-after photos are… interesting.
In Seoul, almost every station has a convenience store, clothing store, and cosmetics store right outside the ticket gate. Some stations are linked to a huge underground or aboveground shopping mall.
In Tokyo, many stations only have a small snack stand. Cosmetic stores are not as common. But bigger stations are built under a shopping mall with bookstores, brand name clothing stores, furniture stores, grocery stores, stationary stores, restaurants, and cafes.
Both cities can help you go out for some shopping without getting wet in the rain.
Both have snack stands inside the ticket gate, but Tokyo has full meals available as well. Many railway stations in Japan has bento stands where you can by lunch boxes and some stations even have noodle stands inside the ticket gates, so you could quickly eat some noodles and hop on the train when you see it coming.
The only difference here is whether the food is available before or after you enter the ticket gate. Seoul has many places to eat outside the ticket gate.
So both subway systems are quite similar, but each have their pros and cons. I think both are convenient and fun places to go to.
If you have been to Seoul or Tokyo, what are some other things that you’ve noticed about the subway?
August 2016 Update
Disclaimer: This post is based on only my personal experience from 2014. I’ve only lived in Seoul and Tokyo for about a year each, and many things could have changed since then. I also did not look at any numbers to compare precisely. Please look it up on Google or Wikipedia if you’re curious.