I lived in Japan for a long time and religion there is somewhat different from the typical western idea of religion. In Japan the simple, native, nature based, Shinto religion co-exists with Buddhism. On some special holidays and festivals (Setsubun, 7-5-3 Festival, and New Years for instance), the Japanese go to Shinto shrines and pray or partake in Shinto rituals, and for other events. On other special times, such as the Obon Festival and funerals, the same people go to their Buddhist temples to partake in Buddhist traditions. The two religions co-exist and are not mutually exclusive. If I had to describe how this works I would say that Shinto takes care of people’s daily spiritual needs and focuses on this world, while Buddhism takes care of their soul’s spiritual needs and gives them a larger philosophy about things such as the afterlife. This dual belief system doesn’t conflict, but rather compliments very nicely. It some ways it seems as if it can address more topics than some mono-theistic religion such as Christianity, which often have difficulty in saying clear things about this world, often requiring the practitioner to simply rely on faith and focus on the next world or afterlife. This of course is only my perspective.
There are Shinto shrines EVERYWHERE and people visit them often to pray. But if you ask Japanese people, they will tend to say that they are not religious. Shinto and Buddhism seem to me to be very personal religions where practitioners often visit temples or shrines on their own time to pray individually and as needed as opposed to many Western religions which focus more on services that groups attend at set times. I often found this a little perplexing as the Japanese are an extremely group oriented culture while western (Christian) cultures tend to me more individual.
This is but one of many Shinto shrines in the small town where I lived. This was on the outer edge of town, along a river, a very pleasant 25 minute bicycle ride from my apartment. Typically on the path or road leading to the shrine you’ll find a big cement arch called a “torii.” The shine will have a rattle or a bell that you ring by shaking the rope hanging from it to get the attention of the deity you are praying to, then you pray while standing at the steps at the front of the shrine. Often a holy object is protected inside in an alter in the back. A common holy object is a mirror which I believe symbolizes the deity enshrined.