I am currently visiting Danouen in Makinohara City, Shizuoka Prefecture, where the proprietors of this tea farm, Sadao and Tomoko Takatsuka, are showing me the processes of winter tea making.
Danouen’s roasted green tea is made by stirring the tea leaves in a specially-made roasting pot for three hours by hand. The creation of each batch only has a success rate of one in three, and if its taste does not meet the couple’s stringent standards, the tea will be returned to the fields as fertilizer without ever being tasted by another.
Even the batch being created during my visit may end up being discarded unless it meets with their approval; in this respect, it would seem that Tomoko has the final say.
Sadao continues stirring the pot without ever changing speeds. All we can do is watch, so Tomoko offers to brew me some tea while we wait. As we sip our tea, I decide to turn my focus to Tomoko, and ask her a few questions.
The meaning behind the name Danouen
Tomoko prepares us some cups of Bokugen Sojin, a pan-fired tea made with hand-picked buds. I enquired about the origin of this unusual name, which seems to indicate something about a “grass man of Makinohara.”
“Sadao’s grandfather (Goro, the original proprietor of Danouen) was really more passionate about tea research than about running a business, apparently spending much of his time down at the test center (currently known as the Shizuoka Prefectural Research Institute of Agriculture and Forestry Tea Research Center). While he was a devoted researcher, he wasn’t so good at maintaining his own tea garden. His gardens were so overgrown, that one day a contemporary declared that he was the greatest grower of grasses and weeds in all Makinohara, bestowing upon him the nickname ‘Bokugen Sojin.’ It turns out, though, that he actually liked the nickname and used it as his pen name when writing in, for example, to the famous industry monthly, Cha. He used to write in with his various crazy ideas, like that tea should be brewed and served cold in summer, which was, of course, well ahead of his time…”
Bokugen Sojin Fuji Kaori has now become one of Danouen’s most well-known products, even winning selection in the major Shizuoka tea contest, “Fujinokuni Mountain Tea 100,” on multiple occasions since 2014. Next, I decide to ask about the name of Danouen itself. Again, to the untrained eye, it looks like it means “bad farm,” but surely that can’t be true…?
“The name Danouen also derives from what was originally an insult,” Tomoko confirms. “The original proprietor was so engrossed in his research that he would often neglect the running of the business and so was labeled a ‘danou,’ or ‘bad farmer.’ But again, he took to the label, and ended up naming his farm Danouen.”
Makinohara is perhaps Japan’s most famous tea cultivation region and is known as the origin of deep-steamed tea. For most farmers in the area, there really is only one choice when it comes to what variety to cultivate: Yabukita. Despite this, Goro, the grass man of Makinohara, cultivated as many as 50 different varieties at once. The second-generation proprietor, Takashi, was a very gentle-spirited man, and even amid the peak of the cult of Yabukita, he managed to maintain a little of the diversity he had inherited.
“Currently we grow 13 different varieties, some over significantly larger areas than others,” explains Tomoko. “It’s certainly fewer than the original 50 or so, but it is Goro’s influence, and that of our immediate predecessor, who was also committed to growing more than just Yabukita, that lives on, and has been incredibly useful to us. It is thanks to them that we can produce a number of varieties of single-origin tea.”
How closing off one path set them free
Caption: The deep-steamed tea made by Danouen is of the type known as “Yonkon,” in which the final rolling process is omitted. By doing so, the tea leaves appear rounded but maintain a gentle aroma and a clean, rich taste. Danouen also produces teas using a variety of other styles, including pan-fired tea, pan-fired bancha, black tea, and roasted tea. Multiplying these tea production styles by the number of varieties they grow means they are able to sell 30 to 40 different products. Tomoko tells me that they have recently started experimenting with white tea. The rabbit design in the logo, incidentally, is the creation of their daughter.
So what is it that motivates them to keep growing so many varieties of tea, and to keep creating products in such a wide range of styles, when they only have the two of them as permanent workers? One of the most significant turning points in their career came two years ago when they made the decision to stop selling their tea to wholesalers. Just like producers of many other agricultural or fishing goods, the role of the tea farmer is fundamentally to grow and harvest tea leaves, and sell them to tea wholesalers (dealers) in a state that allows for storage and is almost ready for sale (unrefined tea). The decision to remove this most fundamental of sales paths must have been a difficult one indeed.
“One of the key factors behind the decision was that the tea the dealers want doesn’t quite match with the tea my husband and I want to make. There’s no denying that the type of tea the dealers want is more classic and traditional; after all, they sell so much more than we do. My husband had been wrestling for several years with the dilemma of not being able to make the kind of tea the dealers wanted from him. But even before we made this decision, we were selling about a third of our tea directly to the consumer, so ending our relationship with the wholesalers wasn’t quite a complete leap into the unknown. Plus, we had the advantage of growing so many different varieties. My husband told me that we just need to think of it as being reborn in a new profession, and in the end, it’s clear to me now that the decision has set us free. Starting afresh like this has allowed us to communicate more directly with the customers who have supported us for so long. It’s wonderful to be able to talk to them and have them tell us what kind of tea they want to drink—that’s inspired us to increase the varieties we grow and even try experimenting with things like white tea, which take much longer to make. It genuinely is much more fun this way, and we have been blessed with the support of so many people. The decision has widened the circle of people who contribute to our creations, and it just feels like it’s given us wings.”
It is this resolution which drives them to keep making tea with such relentless determination. Even when we talk about this major decision that has changed their lives, Tomoko continues smiling cheerfully. She does not make any effort to convince me that their decision was the correct one; she simply honestly indicates that they have got where they are today by selecting the path they saw as the most enjoyable.
All the while, Sadao’s hands have never stopped moving. As those readers who watched the video included in the first half of this article will be aware, though, he actually uses his entire body to keep the pot in motion.
He appears to have gradually turned up the heat. Now, faint wisps of smoke are beginning to curl up from the pot. Tomoko walks over to observe the final stages of the roasting process at close quarters.
“About three more minutes,” estimates Sadao.
Burn the leaves, and they’re ruined. Fail to roast them enough, and the end product won’t taste right. A final decision on when to stop roasting the leaves is always a difficult and delicate matter.
Swiftly collecting the leaves from the pot, Sadao sorts them through a sieve and spreads them out on a special tray to cool.
We place some of the last successful batch of roasted green tea (which I partook of in the first half of the article, at the bottom of the photo) together with some of this latest batch (at the top of the photo) together in a bowl.
They look pretty similar… but the true test is in the taste!
All eyes are on Sadao as he begins to brew some roasted green tea (TBC). “It looks good,” he murmurs.
“I feel strangely nervous all of a sudden,” he laughs. “Here we go.”
“No bitterness, no burnt leaves… What do you think? Give me your honest opinion,” he says, looking in our direction.
It is, in fact, very tasty. The sweet, soft aroma and deep-steamed tea leaves give the tea a sharp bittersweetness that spreads warmly in the mouth, even giving it something approaching a sizzle. I think the previous brew may have had a slightly stronger sweetness, but I prefer this one overall.
“That’s good,” says Tomoko after I express my opinion, “but it’s probably because you have an emotional attachment to this brew after seeing it made,” she adds with a laugh.
While she’s certainly right that I do have an attachment to this one, it is no lie that the taste of this roasted green tea has left me fully satisfied. Tomoko compares the taste of the two brews one last time, and gives the new batch her seal of approval. It’s an official success.
(Everyone bursts into a spontaneous round of applause.)
“I wouldn’t mind being able to rely on machinery a little more, personally,” mutters Sadao, prompting laughter.
“If we could still produce the same flavor, then I would have nothing against it either,” admits Tomoko.
I feel like my visit to the Takatsukas’ farm has given me a precious glimpse not only into their tea creation processes, but also their tea creation philosophy.
Although entirely focused on the leaves in his pot during the roasting process, Sadao now gives me a carefully considered answer to my final question of what kind of tea he truly wants to make.
“I know it sounds a little abstract, but I want to make tea that soothes the drinker’s soul. I want to create something that brings genuine satisfaction. Our tea doesn’t have any particular richness of flavor or really strong notes of umami or anything, but I think it provides the comfort that tea was always meant to provide. Not in terms of its taste, but in terms of what it evokes in the drinker. We have customers who have been buying our wares for decades, and who always ask to buy the same as last year. Or recently, we’ve had people who were given one of our products as a gift and liked it so much that they came back to buy more themselves. It’s the knowledge that we have people like that waiting for our tea that keeps us focused on what we have to do. In the past, I was always worried about what others were doing—when other farmers were beginning their pruning or whatever. In other words, I was always looking around, but now, all I look at is the tea itself.”
In every word that falls naturally from their lips, and in the tea that Sadao and Tomoko Takatsuka create, I can sense the spirit of three generations of Danouen’s philosophy that has made their wares truly unique.
Danouen A family-owned and operated tea farm, founded by Sadao’s grandfather Goro Takatsuka in 1952 and operated for over 70 years since. Located in the major tea-growing region of Makinohara, it is unusual for its cross-generational cultivation of multiple varieties of tea and its unique creation of pan-fired teas and black teas. Third-generation proprietor Sadao met his wife Tomoko when they were both students at an agricultural university, and now the two of them carry out almost every operation of the business by themselves, from picking to pan-firing to the creation of an eclectic range of teas, including deep-steamed teas, black teas, and roasted green teas. In addition to their twice-monthly participation in the Daita Morning Market in Tokyo’s Setagaya, where they sell their tea leaves direct to consumers, their wares can also be bought online.