Let me just preface this by saying that I truly enjoyed my time in South Korea, and I will definitely be going back someday. These are merely my opinions on the cultural differences between Korea and Japan.
You know how, in school, they encourage you to do the hardest homework first to get it out of the way? That same rule applies if you’re visiting South Korea and Japan in the same trip. My suggestion would be to throw yourself into the pit of SK, be willing to get tossed around, and then relax in Japan.
When I envision the differences of Korea and Japan in my head, it looks like one of two scenarios:
Scenario 1: Getting beaten up at a bar, making it out alive, and going home to crash on a heavenly bed full of pillows and warm blankets.
Scenario 2: Being picked on or rejected at school/work and coming home to a family that loves you for who you are.
South Korea being the bar/school/work scene and Japan, the bed full of pillows or the loving family.
My introduction to South Korea got off to a rocky start. I entered the country through Busan where I spent 2 lonely days among people who expressed little interest in interacting with a foreigner fresh off the boat from Japan. I realize as a Japanese-American with a dangerous lack of knowledge of the Korean language/history, the odds were against me, but I wasn’t asking for happy-go-lucky, just common decency.
Those details aside, I was quick to notice that their culture, though similar to Japan in some regards, isn’t as polished or respectful. After traveling to Seoul, my environment and interaction with others had improved, but my impressions still hadn’t shifted much.
What I found is that Korea knows no order or personal space or so it would seem, compared to the high strung and sometimes disastrous attitudes of those in America. Koreans can come off as rude, upon first approach, but after multiple interactions and conversations with the same people, they really start to warm up to you. Their shy and reserved nature stems from fear of embarrassment, and it can be off-putting. Haven’t we all been there though?
They take after their neighbor, China, in the sense that they are cheap and they sneeze where they please, and compared to Japan, there is a stark difference in service. Koreans aren’t to blame, however. With multiple great nations surrounding them and the messy division between North and South, such pressure would be taxing on anyone.
Across the water is a land I consider my own personal utopia. Might sound like an exaggeration, but by God, it’s true. You know how they say that a country caters to what its citizens need as opposed to tourists? Japan is the exception. They are so unbelievably accommodating for tourists that the effort it takes to get from one place to another, order food, etc. is minimal and seamless. Additionally, the courtesy level is something I don’t know can be found anywhere else in the world and makes for warm reception. They are a nation of people who love you without knowing you and bend over backwards to ensure your comfort and safety.
On the contrary, goods are more expensive in Japan so it’s better to do your shopping in Korea and tighten up the budget in Japan. Clean-cut, modern attire can be purchased at half the price, and you’ll still be able to blend in well to the classy fashion standards of Japan. Ending your trip in the land of the rising sun is finishing on a high note.
As you can tell, from my personal experience, visiting SK after Japan put a bit of a damper on my overall opinions of the country. Visiting Japan before SK was like taking it down a notch so I think traveling to SK first can give you a fairer, more accurate reading of the country.