Is it terribly wrong to like Nikko more than Kyoto? It is possibly controversial, but I loved the beauty of this national park with its wooded mountains, wide open lakes and crashing waterfalls. It also reminded me a little of home and Scotland ... although possibly the fact is was lightly raining on the first day had something to do with that (^.^).
Kyoto does of course have a vast number of amazing shrines and temples; all of which are uniquely different and memorable. The gripe I had with the city is that it is very spread out and you spend a large proportion of time sitting on buses crawling through the ugly concrete jungle that is its urban centre. Nikko, by contrast, has a handful of pretty shrines nestled in the wooded hills with walks weaving through the countryside.
The largest Nikko Shrine is Nikko Tosho-gu, dedicated to Tokugawa leyasu who founded the Tokugawa shogunate, the feudal regime in Japan between around 1600 - mid 1800s. However, the Shrine is possibly more famous for its carving for the three wise monkeys; hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil which form one frame of a story panel showing a monkey's life from birth to motherhood. At the same shrine is also a famous carving of a sleeping cat; nemuri-no-neko.
As a side line, it is interesting to compare Buddhist temples with European churches. Both are beautiful, but very differently styled in their decor and religious emphasis. In Christianity, the human aspect forms the central part of the religion; God became man and had real human doubts, suffered human pain and died a very human death. Where they exist, representations of Christ and the saints show men like you or I. By contrast, deities in Japanese temples are frequently portrayed as vast, gold covered statues with inhuman features such as the thousand armed Kannon (normally represented with rather less arms, but considerably more than your average spider). Such images conjure up feelings of awe and fear of powers beyond human comprehension. Yet, in some ways, I feel that both temples and churches compliment each other. They both point to a force beyond life and offer explanations of what might follow once we leave this mortal coil. Such topics are, by their very nature, beyond that of human experience and possibly only by embracing all these different ideologies do we hope to touch on understanding.
Having been through these deep and philosophical thoughts, it was time to relax. Fortunately, Nikko is also known for its hot springs and our hotel had its own onsen. This has to be what I will miss most about Japan. What I will miss least are eastern-style toilets.