This is the end of the large rope that rings the bell at Hikawa Shrine (氷川神社). The proper way to pray varies slightly depending on the shrine but many go like this:
1. Step up and ring the bell
2. Bow twice
3. Clap twice
4. Pray (don't forget to say your name!) and throw coins in offering box
5. Bow once
Pretty simple right?
The reason we ring the bells and clap before we pray is, not only to wake up the gods and get their attention, but the sound also purifies our aura and allows us to communicate more clearly with the gods.