Ceramics lovers can go hog-wild on the Mall these days: There are enough ancient and modern Oriental works on view to run the legs off even a hardened museum-cruiser.
A good starting point is the Freer Gallery, just outside Metro's Smithsonian station, where a small but choice gallery of ancient Japanese ceramics has just been installed. The pieces range from a 5,000-year-old hand-laid earthenware storage jar to a 19th- century tea-ceremony water basin made by a famous Sumo wrestler. Intermediate pieces exemplify the development of the potter's wheel and high-temperature kilns, and the growth of the happy accident of ash-glazing into the glory of the ceramist's art. Several examples illustrate the influence of Chinese and Korean styles; a visit to the gallery of ancient Chinese ceramics at the east end of the building reinforces the point.
A long, refreshing hike catty-corner across the Mall to the remodeled West Building of the National Gallery of Art (Seventh Street entrance) leads to the hall housing the fabulous Kress collection of ancient Chinese porcelains. On view for the first time in a decade, the pieces are breathtaking. But whether subtly shaded or intricately figured, they're oddly austere; your fingers don't itch to touch them.
Then it's west along Constitution Avenue for a couple of blocks to the Museum of Natural History, where all the themes come together in the superb modern Japanese ceramics on view in the Evans Gallery. The several hundred objects range from milk cups to abstract sculptures, representing the finest work of Japan's hundred leading ceramists. Whatever your taste, there are scores of pieces that will rouse covetous frenzy.
After that it may be all you can do to stagger round the corner to the Federal Triangle Metro stop on 12th Street. JAPANESE CERAMICS FROM PAST TO PRESENT -- Through August 31 at the Freer Gallery. THE KRESS CHINESE PORCELAINS -- On permanent display in the West Building, National Gallery of Art. FIRE AND EARTH: JAPANESE CERAMICS TODAY -- Through April 13 at the Museum of Natural History.