JAPAN - A visit to a Shinto shrine is a must for any Japan experience.
Large shrines, such as the Ise Grand Shrine in Mie, Meiji Shrine in Tokyo and Kasuga-Taisha shrine in Nara, are world-class cultural heritage sites, attracting thousands of pilgrims and visitors daily.
In contrast, there are untold numbers of tiny local shrines. Most of these don't even have an office or full-time priest in residence. The surrounding community cleans and maintains the buildings and grounds, and a priest is called in to perform ceremonies on festive occasions.
No matter where you are in Japan, you are under the protection of a local Shinto kami deity. The entire country, with the exception of Okinawa Prefecture, is divided into clearly separated shrine districts.
A district may contain several shrines, but usually only one of these is designated as the ubusuna or ujikami. This shrine houses the kami deity that looks after the district and the people that live and work there.
Most local shrines are not fenced or walled, and are open to the public.
A torii gate marks the boundary between the sacred space inside the shrine precincts and the secular space outside.
Often the shrine is situated on high ground overlooking the community, and a set of steep steps leads from the torii up to the actual buildings.
A typical local shrine complex features two small wooden buildings, one behind the other and connected by a short corridor. The front building is the haiden or worship hall, where ceremonies are conducted and people come to pray.
The rear building is the honden or main sanctuary, inside of which the deity is believed to reside. The deity is usually represented by a sacred object, or shintai.
This may be a mirror, or just a stone, but is never exposed to view. Even the priests are not allowed to see it.
When visiting a shrine, first stop and bow once after passing through the torii.
Next, wash your hands and mouth in the basin if there is one. In front of the haiden, place some small coins in the collection box and ring the bell to announce your presence.
Then bow deeply twice, clap your hands in front of your chest twice, convey your wishes or gratitude, and finish by bowing deeply once more.
After paying your respects, you might like to wander around the shrine precinct. Many shrines will have several sub-shrines dedicated to other local deities.
These may be just a stone statue or a small wooden structure. You also may want to sit or stand quietly for a while.