Somewhat harder to get close to Shinto, when you live in Japan, than to get close to Buddhism, although getting close to the practice of Zen Buddhism is not easy either. But Shinto remains very active in the lives of people, especially outside of the big urban areas.
It was up in the Nara bonchi that I first visited a Shinto temple, a visit arranged through the friend of a friend, for whom I was teaching some substitute English lessons. When I got to the temple, which was set up against a small, pine and hinoki covered mountain, I was surprised to be met by the head priest. Then I realized, almost looking over my shoulder, that the friend of the friend was very important. That temple was known for guarding a special spring on the mountainside, which had never gone dry. From the spring, a special milky saki was made every year, which I got to try. The quality of the water, please try to understand it, the priest said. But green saki is like green wine.
Later I happened upon these young women going through initiation rituals at a Shinto Temple nearer to Kyoto, not a place that many foreigners visit. From a distance they flowed like a two toned red and white dragon through the woods, and somewhat closer I thought they might be archers, for I had seen the big tournament at Sanjusangendo a few months earlier. But no, this hundred young women, serious and somber, were learning to become something like altar servers, rendering unto the spirit of nature that had called them.