KYOTO CERAMICS -- such as the pieces from 1600 to 1868 now on display at the Freer -- are used on special occasions, the way a western hostess takes out the Sevres porcelain or the Royal Crown Derby.

In Kyoto, one such occasion would be the Gion festival, which is depicted here on a gold- leaf, late 17th-century screen. For this religious festival, held in the heat of summer to ward off plague, each block of merchants designed a float. Townspeople living along the parade route slid open the wooden doors to their homes for a front-row seat. It was a time for universal open house when residents displayed their finery, including Kyoto ceramics.

At the time the screen was made, Kyoto was the imperial capital. As such, Kyoto dictated taste, and was a repository for wonderful silks and lacquer ware and home to painters, poets and of course potters. Tourists came to visit the temples and shrines visible on this screen, and took home Kyoto ware as souvenirs. The screen itself, suggests Louise Cort, who organized the show at the Freer, was probably a souvenir.

At the time the screen was made, potter Nonomura Ninsei was doing innovative work, using colored enamels on his pieces. This overglaze enamel decoration, usually cobalt blue and turquoise, distinguishes Kyoto ceramics.

He fashioned a cunning rabbit incense box on display here. The 31-item exhibit also includes a lovely three-tiered box for serving steamed cakes at a celebration like the Gion festival, and a number of tea bowls and water jars for use in the tea ceremony. Many of them are signed, for poet, painter and potter alike were considered artists. KYOTO CERAMICS -- At the Freer Gallery through April 21, 1985.