WHO: Alberto Rizzotti, 56, and his son, Eric, 13, of Berkley.
WHEN: 18 days in July
WHY: "Every couple years we take some kind of exotic vacation," Rizzotti said. "My wife and daughter don't take to car driving that well, so they went on their own trip. I'd never been to the Orient and Eric was into Japanese popular culture."
ROAD TRIPPERS: "I like to rent a car to see as much of the country as possible," Rizzotti said. "I was a little concerned about driving in Japan. You have to drive on the left side, and not many people speak English, and the signs are in Japanese. But Eric and I are laid back."
BONING UP: Before going, Rizzotti studied Japanese for about six months. "I learned enough to get by speaking roughly," he said. "If I didn't have that, I really would have been lost." He made hotel reservations only in Tokyo and relied on the network of traditional inns (or ryokans) for lodging. The only negative was the "extremely hot and uncomfortable weather."
CITY LIGHTS: "Tokyo is the most awesome metropolis I've been to," he said. "It's like Times Square times 35. It was vibrant, with people walking all over the place, clean and safe. Eric was absolutely overwhelmed. We got up at 4 in the morning to see the tuna auction at Tsukiji, the largest fish market in world."
CAR CULTURE: They relied on GPS to drive out of Tokyo. "I didn't turn the car off all day because I didn't want to lose the settings," Rizzotti said. Although it was in Japanese, he and Eric could deduce the basic commands. He soon realized that the toll roads, which he figured cost about 50 cents a mile, were worth the money because the secondary roads were so crowded. Gas stations amused them. "The first thing is they want to clean your ashtray. Four people wait on you, and when you're done they line up in a row and bow. And there's no tipping." By the end of the trip they'd logged 2,300 miles.
SIGHTS AND SPAS: In the historic town of Kurashiki, which sits on a canal, "there was a festival with parades of people in costumes." They visited the spa town of Beppu, which contains thousands of hot springs along with Mount Takasaki National Park, known for its wild monkeys.
BIG BUDDHA: Except for a quick jaunt north, they headed south of Tokyo, staying in most towns for a couple of nights. Often they would rent bicycles to get around. Stops included seeing the female divers at Mikimoto Pearl Island and Nara, known for Todaiji, a temple complex, and the "Great Buddha of Nara," a 50-foot bronze Buddha. "It is spectacular. They also have deer that run loose."
BIRTHDAY, BOY!: "I took Eric to Osaka for his birthday, to Universal Studios Japan. He was really excited. We ate at Bubba Gump Shrimp, and they sang 'Happy Birthday' in Japanese." From Osaka they visited Kyoto, "the Florence of Japan," Rizzotti said. "It was beautiful, and I got to see geishas."
SOMBER STOP: Hiroshima "was a very touching part of the trip," Rizzotti said. "We went to the peace park. It's very well put together and quite inspiring and makes you feel terrible for the things we did."