As this is the first Ceramic Scene of 2004, I’d like to wish all readers a Happy and Healthy New Year!

Before I introduce some wonderful exhibitions, though, I’d like to share a few musings from this “pottery poet” — as a close friend likes to call me.

There is a delightful Japanese expression about the beauty and mystery of a clay jar: ko-chu-ten (jar-in-heaven). It’s a reference to finding “heaven within the emptiness of a jar,” yet within this “emptiness” can be found boundless energy and the stuff of life itself. On a metaphysical plane it’s possible to experience a profound epiphany within the clay walls — defined by empty space — of a cup, say, while sitting quietly for a few moments each day sipping tea and “communing” with the cup (comprising the life-giving elements of fire, water, earth and air) and yourself (spirit-consciousness); an inward exploration.

As the late, great writer-oracle Joseph Campbell put it in his brilliant book “Myths To Live By”: “Turn within, therefore, if you seek your model for the image of a god. Accordingly, it is the experience of this plane of consciousness that is rendered visible in the Oriental arts.” In no art more so then pottery, I may add; and no place more so than Japan, with its rich associations of Zen and tea.

We all have the opportunity to enrich our lives with what we choose to live with and use each day. Think of all the plastic; the items made for profit alone; the useless things we buy and toss out without a care. How are we to make a better world? The answer: By developing ourselves in silent “connectiveness”; by raising our consciousness to a plane that sees everything as being connected; and by bringing wholesome items into our daily lives that nourish our bodies, our minds and, whenever possible, the environment.

Few places offer us a better opportunity to do so than Japan, with its handmade objects — antique or not — that “connect” natural materials and daily function. In Japan we are incredibly blessed: This country is a potters’ paradise. So, for a shin’nen hofu (new year’s resolution), make it a point to seek out a few “clay gems” that will guide you to a deeper appreciation of the preciousness of each passing-yet-infinite moment.

One way to start off, in terms of developing an “eye,” at least, is to visit Wako in Ginza, Jan. 17-28 (closed Sunday). There you will be able to see some of Japan’s finest clay creations in the Japan Ceramic Society’s annual award-winners exhibition: 160 works by 76 artists will be on display.

The exhibition celebrates winners of the JCS’s prestigious award, especially its creme-de-la-creme gold award. The award was first handed out in 1954, to three potters: current living national treasure Uichi Shimizu, for iron-glazed wares; the late avant-garde potter Junkichi Kumakura; and the Seto potter Mineo Okabe, who actually turned down the award.

Showing this year we find a number of living national treasures, quite a few prefectural intangible cultural properties, and many potters of notable lineage, including Kichizaemon Raku XV. The works themselves span everything from tableware to objets d’art, in dozens of varied traditions.

Those whose curiosity was piqued by last month’s column will have the chance to see a breast-shape piece from the “Maria” series of Hagi’s newly crowned Kyusetsu Miwa XII. More spectacular, though, are neriage marbleware platters from Ito Sekisui V. His molded red flower petals burst off the forms with uncanny reality and clearly show why this Sado Island potter was given the lofty designation of living national treasure.

I wish I could say that for all LNTs, as I find some of their work more than a little predictable. If you see me at the exhibition and want me to name names, just ask. Some of these LNTs don’t even touch “their” work anymore, but have their apprentices and craftsman make the works. (That said, this isn’t necessarily underhanded, as the practice does date back centuries to the great Kyoto potters of the Edo Period.)

From Kyoto, this exhibition gathers dark, mystical works by Yo Akiyama; vessels incised with nature motifs by Masayuki Imai; colorful swirling patterns, full of life, by Mutsuo Yanagihara; and icy-blue porcelain sake vessels by Shin Fujihira.

Actually, sake vessels are the theme of this year’s JCS show, and some rare treasures will be on display. These include guinomi (sake cups) and tokkuri (sake flasks) by Bizen’s Toyo Kaneshige and Kei Fujiwara, and the work of famous names such as Rosanjin, Kazuo Yagi and Sozan Kaneshige. Incidentally, the latter may be legendary in the potting world, but only Yagi ever won a JCS award — perhaps because the other two were already seen as talented beyond all further acclamation.

In addition, antique wares by past masters will be on display, such as a Karatsu guinomi dating from the Momyama Period (1573-1615).

Also showing — and for sale — are shuki (sake vessels). Be sure to search out pieces by Bizen’s Shuroku Harada and Ryuichi Kakurezaki; Kyoto’s Kazuo Takiguchi; the flawless celadon of Shinobu Kawase and Sueharu Fukami; and the soothing amber-glazed cups of Chozaemon Ohi X. There will be many others on display for purchase. Congratulations to the JCS on a fine exhibition that also marks its 50th anniversary this year!

Other exhibitions of note to get you started on your ceramic resolution include two shuki exhibitions in Tokyo. One is at the small Ginza gallery Manyodo (Ginza 7-3-13, [03] 3571-5337; closed Sunday), Jan. 15-Feb. 13. Also in Ginza, at Kuroda Toen (Ginza 7-8-6, [03] 3571-3223; closed Monday) is the elegant Raku tea-bowl world of Tomojiro Naoki, Jan. 17-23.

One of Japan’s finest contemporary ceramic galleries is Kuroda Toen ([03] 3499-3225) located on Meiji-dori, a short walk from JR Shibuya Station, on the first floor of the Metro Plaza (Shibuya 1-16-14). Their dai-shuki exhibition runs until Jan. 21.

In the lobby of the Hotel New Otani is Kandori, which hosts an exhibition of shuki and yunomi (tea cups) until Jan. 18.

And finally, a double bill. The “Bear of Echizen,” Kuroemon Kumano (kuma means “bear”), is exhibiting at Nihonbashi Takashimaya’s sixth-floor gallery, Jan. 14-20. Kumano is a powerful potter with a sharp Zen mind. He creates bold expressive forms in a style all his own, which has been dubbed Kuma-Shino. At the same venue, on the eighth floor, is a special presentation of ancient Chinese sansai (“three-color”) ware, showing until Jan. 26. (Admission 800 yen.)

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