While most tourists have never heard of Shokoku-ji, every single one of them knows about the Golden pavilion (Kinkaku-ji 金閣寺) and the Silver pavilion (Ginkaku-ji 銀閣寺). Describing the importance of Shokoku-ji compared to these two heavy weight of tourism is simple: Shokoku-ji owns both of them.
Shokoku-ji was founded in 1383 by an imperial order. The emperor wanted to build a great temple near his residence, and after several years of development is wish became a reality in 1392. Unfortunately, like so many temples in Kyoto, Shokoku-ji was completely destroyed during the Onin war (1467-1477). New buildings were reconstructed with the assistance of rich nobles of the time (notably the hatto and the main gate) but disaster struck again in 1788 when the only building left after a devastating fire was the hatto, which stands to this day. This explains why Shokoku-ji has no Buddha hall or main gate (although they probably have the money to build them...)
The importance of Shokoku-ji also shows in the somewhat exclusive attitude they have; most parts of the temple are only open a few weeks (or even days) per year. The "classic" tour, when available, consists in three places. First is the main hall (法堂) that has a remarkable ceiling painting of a dragon that changes its posture when watched from a different location. Second is the small bath house (浴屋), which is in fact closer to a sauna (original built in 1400). The last part is the founder's hall (kaizan-do - 開山塔 or 開山堂) and its large and airy dry landscape zen garden (built 1807).
Sub-temples of the compound can sometimes be visited, but you will have to either watch Japanese websites or be very lucky... Otherwise the grounds are open all day, as is common for large temple grounds, and make a great strolling park for those living nearby.
Photography is not prohibited in Shokoku-ji, except in the main hall (which is normal). The temple is, however, very protective of its image, and only allows one single photographer to publish pictures. Yes, that includes the Golden and Silver pavilions. The (very well known) photographer probably has some kind of deal with the monk, but this has led to pictures been pulled from news websites after pressure from the temple... Luckily this restriction is for publications in Japan only, and there seems to be no legal base for it anyway.
Recommended for: Access:
Nearby: Kamigoryō-jinja 上御靈神社 (350m), Ikutanike Jūtaku 生谷家住宅 (470m), Budda-ji 佛陀寺 (480m), Honman-ji 本満寺 (570m), Myōken-ji 妙顕寺 (660m), Hōkyō-ji 宝鏡寺 (820m), Honpō-ji 本法寺 (880m), Mitsui-Shimogamo Villa 旧三井家下鴨別邸 (940m), Kawai-jinja 河合神社 (950m), Fujita House 藤田家住宅 (960m),...
External links: Website, ウィキペディア, Wikipedia, Wikipédia, Kyoto Navi, Trip Advisor, Kyoto Design, 京都風光, Marutake, そうだ京都
Keywords: Japan, 日本, Japon, Kyoto, 京都, 中京, 下京, 上京, 相国寺, Shokoku-ji, temple, 寺院, 仏閣