Bicycle touring South Korea and Japan: a comparison

First, to conclude our journey:

In contrast to our quick 21-hour trip from Antalya to Seoul (with one short stop in Moscow), it took 44 hours to return from Miyazaki to Antalya.  We had an overnight in Incheon — fun — and a fairly long wait in Istanbul since our original Istanbul-Antalya flight had been canceled and the later one they switched us to was delayed — not so fun.

I must say, the Incheon airport is a very easy one for an overnight layover.  Seoul is very far, and Incheon is kind of far, but right near the airport is a place that may (or may not) be called Airport New Town.  We took the cheap (1000 won (US$0.86)/person), frequent train less than 10 minutes to Unseo.  From the station it was less than a 10-minute walk to a guest house where we found a clean room with heat and hot water in the attached bathroom for 30,000 won (US$26)/night for two people.  It doesn’t get much easier than that from a giant international airport.

This is the same area where we had our first meal in Korea two months earlier:

IMG_20190926_134840 by bryandkeith on flickr

Here we are back in front of the same restaurant but without our bikes this time:

Two months earlier this is where Ferda and I ate our first meal in Korea.  This time we don't have our bicycles. by bryandkeith on flickr

From the clothes Ferda’s wearing in those photos you might notice a big change in temperature.  Indeed at the end of September it was really too hot in Seoul.  By the end of November, however, it was too cold.  What a huge change in two months.  They seem to have a pretty short nice weather season.

Ferda and I were definitely excited to have one more Korean meal before flying back to Turkey.

IMG_20191120_170648 by bryandkeith on flickr

IMG_20191120_182318 by bryandkeith on flickr

Cycling in South Korea and then Japan, Ferda and I couldn’t help comparing the two.  I debated writing a blog about this ’cause I don’t really like comparing places, but Ferda and I talked about it a fair bit.  Following are some differences that we experienced during our visit.  I’ve arranged the topics from least subjective to most subjective — costs, riding, sightseeing, food, people.  Camping is an important topic for bicycle tourers as well.  I’ll just say that it’s good and easy in both countries, and we were often able to camp near a toilet and running water.

IMG_20191115_161328 by bryandkeith on flickr

Costs — easily quantifiable and something most travelers worry about when they hear “Japan”

Both South Korea and Japan are expensive countries, in the ballpark with the US or France.  Although it feels like Japan is more expensive than Korea, we spent more money per day in Korea (US$78/day vs. US$64/day for two people).  Part of the difference is that we had paid accommodation (usually hotels) 39% (9/23) of our nights in Korea vs. 22% (7/32) in Japan.  I also think we went out to eat more often in Korea.  In Japan we ate a lot of prepared grocery store meals, something we never did in Korea.  Those are tasty and might look like this:

IMG_20191027_141339 by bryandkeith on flickr

IMG_20191119_123648 by bryandkeith on flickr

We were at restaurants more in Korea, even if we did sometimes have to do the cooking ourselves:

IMG_20191120_172256 by bryandkeith on flickr

Both countries have a lot of free places to visit so that the majority of our expenses were definitely food and accommodation.  Our flights and extra luggage fees for the bikes are not included in the above numbers.

It’s certainly easy to spend more or less money than we did.  If you’re scared by these prices, well, consider touring somewhere else, like, say, Indonesia, where we spent half as much money while almost always staying in hotels and eating at restaurants and taking quite a few ferries to move between islands.

Riding — infrastructure and scenery

South Korea has excellent bicycle infrastructure on the bicycle network that they’re quite proud of.  However, once you get off that network especially in rural areas, the conditions are poor — narrow roads with heavy traffic.  The drivers suck, rarely yielding for cyclists even when the cyclists have a green light.

IMG_20190929_164319 by bryandkeith on flickr

Japan, on the other hand, has decent (or better) infrastructure in many areas and has lots of secondary roads with very little traffic.  Drivers are very courteous, hyper-aware of cyclists even when you’re riding against traffic (which is often allowed).  Japan wins here.

IMG_20191113_144902 by bryandkeith on flickr

IMG_20191028_113954 by bryandkeith on flickr

IMG_20191104_133855 by bryandkeith on flickr

Japan wins with the scenery as well, the reason being that in Korea we didn’t want to leave the bike paths.  Since they follow major rivers, well, we were always riding in similar-looking big river valleys.

Looking back toward Gumi and the huge LG buildings by bryandkeith on flickr

Our scenery in Japan was varied and thus more interesting.

IMG_20191021_101145 by bryandkeith on flickr

IMG_20191104_170532 by bryandkeith on flickr


Again this might come back to the infrastructure problem in Korea.  The narrow roads and heavy traffic made us to decide to skip some sites in the southern part of the country that I had wanted to see (Gyeongju, e.g.).  We mostly saw restored buildings from the Joseon Dynasty and a couple Buddhist temples.  It was repetitive.

IMG_20190930_145442 by bryandkeith on flickr

IMG_20191010_160715 by bryandkeith on flickr

In Japan there was more variety.  We saw many Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, carved stone Buddhas, mountains, beaches, parks, gardens, village lanes, picturesque storefronts, even kakashi (scarecrow) villages!

This was the biggest kakashi village that we saw. by bryandkeith on flickr

IMG_20191020_172037 by bryandkeith on flickr


I love Japanese food, and I’d been to Japan twice before so I had an idea what to expect.  The biggest surprise of this trip for me was, well — we enjoyed the food even more in Korea!  The variety is outstanding.  Also, as a foreigner it’s easier to find restaurants in Korea and find something different than you’ve eaten before.  I want to go back to Korea just for the food.

Most of the menus we came across were only in Korean. by bryandkeith on flickr

I thought these hoods over each table were pretty cool.  Eventually we ended up eating at a restaurant with these. by bryandkeith on flickr

IMG_20190928_140014 by bryandkeith on flickr


Of course we met wonderful people in both countries.  The Japanese can be super generous like Miyako in Soeda who gave Ferda a kimono.  And, thinking about it, Koreans can be as well, like Mac in Busan who invited Ferda to study English at his school in Cebu (Philippines) for free!

In both countries communication was difficult, but it’s easier to meet Koreans than Japanese.  The Koreans are quicker to be more fun, energetic, and engaging.  For the Japanese I guess it takes a little more time and/or alcohol.  😉

This cyclist gave us a Korean-style energy bar. by bryandkeith on flickr

IMG_20191112_163043 by bryandkeith on flickr

The Turkish game beş taş is exactly the same as the Korean version by bryandkeith on flickr

This kind woman poinnted out that we were heading up a dead end road by bryandkeith on flickr

Overall, well, I can see myself going back to Japan before I’d go back to Korea.  It’s the variety.  In Korea I feel like I know what to expect.  Northern Honshu, on the other hand, would be a whole new adventure.  But who knows?  Ferda keeps talking about a trip to Jeju Island.

Here’s our route, ~1900km in eight weeks: by bryandkeith on flickr

And what’s this?  Maurice Sendak’s sake?

This sake looked inspired by Maurice Sendak.  Or was it the other way around? by bryandkeith on flickr

This entry was posted in Bicycle touring, Japan, South Korea and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Bicycle touring South Korea and Japan: a comparison

  1. Mike Painter says:

    Interesting comparisons!

  2. June says:

    Wow~ your comparison was very interesting.
    8 weeks 1900 km means lots of covered.
    But You missed few more wonderful places.
    Next time hopefully more challenging for you.
    Good job both of you.

    New Yorker, June, South Korean

  3. Diane Michelle Sobel says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I’m pretty set on returning to Japan to cycle, altho Jeju island also calls, so your information is helpful & confirms my suspicion that Japan is still #1 cycling paradise (for me)!

  4. Snezana says:

    Hi Bryan, nice to read you and to know that you guys are doing well. I’be been cycling Japan from the northernmost point to the southernmost point plus Okinawa island in 2016 (it ook me almost 5 months) and Korea for over 2 months. I could agree with some of your conclusions, but not with all of them. I don’t know which route did you take in Korea, but there are many bicycle paths in Korea, only for cyclists. If you miss them, than you will be in a trouble with traffic. On the other hand, Japan doesn’t have so many cycling paths, but their driwers are very carefful. Radicilous, only traffic accident I’ve had for (at that time) 6 yrs on the road was in Japan! Also, I’d say something about Japanse vs. Koreans. Since I spent almost 6 yrs in Asian countries, I learned a lot about “saving face” – the main cultutral and social phenomen in Asia, particulary in Japan. Long story in short, Japaneses are shame to speak with foreigners, cause they usualy don’t speek English and, if they don’t understand you, they will lose their face. While in Korea, much more peopele is able to understand you althought they will say that they don’t speek English. I learned a lot about cultural diferencies in both countries – Japan and Korea. And I like both a lot. Greatings from Chilean Patagonia!

    • Bryan Keith says:

      Hi Snežana,

      Thank you for the insights. I’m glad that you liked Japan and Korea, and that’s great that you were able to spend five months in Japan. I’ve spent about 2.5 month there, and I’d definitely like to go back. It’s a fascinating country.

      Must be getting cold in Patagonia. I’m in Çamlıyayla, Mersin, in southern Turkey. It’s starting to get hot here, but I’m stuck for a bit taking care of an abscessed tooth. I wonder if I’ll have to have it pulled like you did in İzmir!

      • Snezana says:

        Hi Bryan,

        I agree, Japan is a fascinating country. There are many countries in the world and only one “planet” – Japan. I am working on a book about Japan and the title is (you can guess!) Planet Japan.

        It’s pretty cold in here, but I’m getting used to it. I am living in a wooden hut in the forest, chopping wood, lighting a fire, drinking Chilean wine – there are many ways to warm yourself up. 🙂

        Thanks for reminding me of the episode with the tooth! Omg, that was painful! I hope that you will have better luck with the tooth than me. Good luck and stay safe!


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