The Asahi beer is ice-cold. Naoki Doi takes sips from it between bites of curry. The bespectacled tour guide has asked me and my family to eat fast: he's taking us around some of Kyoto's outstanding shrines and temples, and there's a lot of them to see.
He is, he says, relieved to have some business again. In March this year, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the coast of East Japan, sending a devastating tsunami towards the shore. The tsunami wiped out entire towns across the country's Pacific coast, and caused a meltdown at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant. But while Japan has rebuilt large parts of the damaged areas, tourism in the country took a huge hit. Kyoto may be 500 miles south of Fukushima Prefecture, but it still felt the impact.
"I had 40 or 50 bookings for May onwards, all from foreigners," says Doi. "They all cancelled. Every one. Every reservation. I had some locals coming for tours, but nobody else …My income fell to about 30% of the usual. I got some money from the bank, a temporary emergency loan."
Kyoto is a city known both for its temples and for its traditional ryokan inns with tatami-matted floors, futons and paper screen walls. The night before, we'd stayed at the Tamahan Ryokan, which bills itself as a completely traditional inn (despite having super-fast Wi-Fi in the rooms).
Two of us opted for the Japanese breakfast: it came in lightning waves of tiny plates, hot, cold, rice, boiled tofu, egg custard, grilled mackerel. It's a meal you really have to be very awake to eat. The Japanese have some of the best food on earth but – for the western palate at least – perhaps not the most appetising before 9am.
The major tourist attractions in Kyoto are eerily quiet. The imposing Ryoanji temple is, Doi says, usually rammed with visitors seeking a glimpse of its exquisite zen gardens. Today, there's plenty of space on the steps in front of the main rock garden. Every so often there's a thump as someone in the entrance hall removes their shoes. A quiet zen garden is always beautiful – even if, in this case, it's quiet for the wrong reasons.Ryoan-ji rock garden, Kyoto.
After our tour of the temple, Doi-San takes us to the huge Kyoto Handicraft Centre, which sells traditional Japanese artworks (as well as the obligatory anime action figures). Usually at this time of year, the centre's four floors are bustling, but today they're quiet.
"We used to have a lot of people," says shop assistant Kaori Masaki. "But it dropped right off after April. Now, people don't want to come to Kyoto. They have a big imagination, but they don't know. Japan is very beautiful, and very safe. We want people to come here so we can show them."
The earthquake and tsunami may have caused physical damage, but the damage to the tourism industry could be longer lasting. In February 2011, according to the Japan National Tourism Organisation, the country had 680,398 visitors. In the months following the earthquake, this plummeted – April saw 295,826 tourists, down a staggering 63%. The country still faces an uphill battle to convince visitors to come back. Negative perceptions about safety in Japan persist in the foreign media – not helped by continued questions over whether radiation has leaked into the water and food chain. While we were in the country, the Japan Times would report that levels of radioactive caesium that leaked from the Fukushima plant were equal to 168 Hiroshima atomic bombs.
Our trip took us over much of Japan's main Honshu island, from the cities of Tokyo and Yokohama to the countryside of Hakone. It's breathtakingly beautiful. In Miyajima, a heavily forested island off the coast south of Hiroshima, we walked down to the shore from our hotel. A tame deer wandered up, his nose questing for the plastic cup of flavoured ice I'd picked up from a stall. It was the school holidays, and there were plenty of families out. Ahead of us, out on the water, was the Itsukushima Shinto shrine. This Unesco-listed monument is in the form of a magnificent red gate, or torii that seems to float on the water; it is floodlit at night. In the Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto, we sat at low tables to eat platters of staggeringly fresh, beautifully-arranged sashimi and drink yet more Asahi.
It was all wonderful, yet this island – one of Japan's biggest attractions – sees hardly any foreign tourists. We spot a group of American men relaxing on the beach – turns out they're sailors on shore leave from the military base in Okinawa.Lake and mountains in Hakone
A few days and several Shinkansen (bullet) trains later, we're in Hakone, a hilly town close to Mount Fuji. The Gora Tensui hotel has views across the mountains, from a bar where you can order a cocktail while your feet soak in a hot bath. Yet here, too, it's eerily quiet. Manager Sekitaitei Iishida tells us that we're the first non-Japanese tourists he's had in over two months.
Despite the apparent lack of non-Japanese visitors in the country, Kylie Clark of the Japan National Tourist Board says numbers have been climbing again – in July, 561,700 people visited (for comparison, more than 879,000 came in July 2010). "During April and May, airfares to Japan from the UK had become very high," says Clark, "often over £1,000 for a direct London-Tokyo flight. These prices have now come down. The containment of the problem at the Fukushima plant, more affordable flights, great deals on hotels and Tokyo now being back to its fabulous, well-functioning self are factors encouraging people to once again visit Japan."
• Flight Centre (0844 800 8660, flightcentre.co.uk) has a range of flights to Japan, including a direct Virgin Atlantic return to Tokyo for £547. You'll find plenty of good hotel deals, too: the Tamahan Ryokan in Kyoto (+81 75 561 3188, tamahan.jp) charges £90 a night per person with breakfast, and yes, they offer a Western one if boil-your-own-tofu doesn't appeal. Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto, (+81 829 442411, miyajima-arimoto.co.jp) has Japanese and western-style rooms from £110 a night. The Gora Tensui (+81 0460 86 1411, gora-tensui.com has doubles from £400