Is this Tokyo or is this Seoul?
I took a pit stop in Tokyo en route to Seoul for a few days to visit familiar faces, eat lots of ramen, and do some good old-fashioned exploring. I can’t help but associate these two cities for their similarities and their striking differences. They are both enormous urban areas rich in culture and in cash. Two of the world’s largest and weirdest cities that beg to be compared.
How they are similar
When a city hits a critical density, the subway lines form a mesh of coverage as opposed to the hub and spoke pattern of smaller less dense cities. The subway systems of both Tokyo and Seoul look like god damn spiderwebs. I consider the two transit systems peers in terms of coverage, reliability, and cleanliness. Stations of both systems serve as underground labyrinthine hubs and shopping centers. Even the subway car seating layouts mirror one another. One of my great loves in this world is efficient urban transit infrastructure. New York City be damned. Los Angeles is a joke. Don’t even mention Boston. Seoul and Tokyo are my #1 and #2.
The backstreets of both cities look like neon-lit cyberpunk wonderlands. Sidewalks are non-existent and the buildings effectively form street-walls full of bars and restaurants. If you exchanged Hangul for Japanese they would be largely indistinguishable. I think Tokyo may have the edge in terms of hustle and bustle (here’s looking at you, Shibuya), but Hongdae on a weekend gives it a run for its money.
How they are different
Seoul favors high rise apartment buildings whereas Tokyo favors densely packed two to five story dwellings. At street level, the architectural diversity makes Tokyo the prettier sister. The typical and preferred dwelling in Seoul is identical copy-and-pasted high-rise apartment buildings that are 20 to 30 stories tall. While not much to look at, the high-rises don’t encroach all the way to the street in the same manner as Tokyo housing. This makes for a less claustrophobic feeling than the endless urban canyons of Tokyo.
Seoul has got hills. Seoul has got hills the way Gangnam has plastic surgery. Seoul has got hills the way Kabukicho has gangsters. On the other hand, Tokyo is in a giant river basin and flat. It’s not quite Kansas flat but there are few hills to struggle up. Tokyo is a city friendly to baby strollers and bicycles. It’s a city that doesn’t put up a fight every time you try to take a walk.
This short blurb is by no means an exhaustive comparison. It’s what I thought of as I finished my morning iced americano. When you can go on and on about a sliver of a detail of a place is when you know you love it. While I’m certain it would entertain me to attempt an exhaustive list, I don’t think it would make for good writing. Signing out from Seoul, South Korea.