To mark the New Year and wish for a fresh beginning, the Japanese attach great significance to the first undertakings of the year, particularly the first tea-gathering.

Traditionally, the host chooses bowls with designs conveying wishes for good fortune and longevity. Accordingly, the Freer serves a set of three for tea to get visitors off to a good start in '83.

The shrimp design with the seal of Ninsei (made in a 19th-century Kyoto workshop but modeled on a mid-17th-century form), conveys wishes for longevity. The large shrimp is also known as the "grandfather of the sea." (Note that huge bright red shrimp were also incorporated in New Year's door decorations, illustrated in the lower right- hand corner of screen 59.8, "Scenes of Eastern Kyoto," in the Freer's Gallery V.)

The teabowl with the design of Mount Fuji in the clouds draws on Japanese folk wisdom concerning the three most auspi cious subjects for the first dream of the New Year. "First, Fuji; second, a hawk; third, an eggplant." The clouds swirling around the base of the mountain are shaped like longevity-granting mushrooms.

The 17th-century bowl with the design of three sacred jewels is derived from Buddhist iconography. The jewel is said to have the power to grant wishes; three of them were carried on the back of the hairy-tailed tortoise of longevity.

TEABOWLS FOR THE NEW YORK -- At the Freer through January 15.