I had walked past the entrance more times than I could count. A chochin lantern printed with “drinking place” in Japanese kanji hangs by the doorway, facing a busy thoroughfare.
I didn’t know what to expect behind the closed sliding doors, shrouded by a noren, a traditional Japanese curtain. Nobu-ya’s intimidating reputation precedes everything it stands for. All customers must drink (not an issue) and its manager-sake sommelier might turn you away if you are not a regular (might be an issue).
It took me months before I finally mustered up the courage to enter. It was only much later that I realized the izakaya has another more welcoming entrance inside the mall.
As much as fine dining makes a nice treat on occasion, I’ve always preferred ordinary everyday meals at unassuming locations—a roadside stall manned by itinerant hawkers in Ho Chi Minh City, a basement canteen serving Senegalese working-class lunches frequented by African men in Paris and all-you-can-eat homecooked Gujarati food with strangers on the floor of the chef’s bedroom in eastern Shanghai.
Nobu-ya is a gem of a Japanese izakaya, or a casual drinking establishment also serving food, run by chef-owner Nobukawa Yoshiyuki and manager-sake sommelier Sano Nobuhiko, hidden on the ground floor of an aging 1980s mall in Singapore only middle-aged vegetarian food and Buddhist religious goods enthusiasts would head to. I too wouldn’t have ventured that way if not for Nobu-ya.
On busy nights, folding tables are set up in the mall corridor outside the izakaya to accommodate boisterous diners, many of whom are Japanese.
The atmosphere is electric, with small plates of unpretentious, comfort food on every table, clinking glasses of sake, highball and draft beer amid alcohol-fueled laughters and chatter.
At Nobu-ya, I found a slice of Japan I normally do not get access to.
I’ve only been to Japan twice. On my second trip, a sombre realization hit me—I would never be able to truly experience Japan as long as I do not speak Japanese.
Guesswork and gesturing could only get me so far. I wished I could read the menus, sometimes in a flourish of handwritten Japanese, of the eateries and bars I stumbled upon. It didn’t matter if I sat at the counter when I couldn’t engage in meaningful conversations.
In comparison, Sano-san’s gruff “Are you drinking?” in Japanese-accented English was a barrier to entry I was able to overcome easily.
At Nobu-ya, I got to experience Japan for once with minimal language barriers.
Their no-fuss, no-photo three-page clipboard menus updated daily to reflect seasonal offerings and item variations also come with English translations.
My husband asks Sano-san for his recommendations and orders some dry sake.
It is hard to find fault with a bar that serves an array of simple, home-style food, the kind an overachieving Japanese mom might prepare to meet the needs of the fussiest family members, from small bites to bigger servings of hot foods.
I’m partial to izakaya culture. The concept of drinking with snacks and small plates more substantial than peanuts and potato chips makes so much sense for people who want to spend the night drinking without worrying if the party would be cut short by hunger or companions who want to get dinner elsewhere.
Scouring the menu, I discovered controversial but delicious treats I would have never stumbled upon in a Japanese-language menu such as chanja (chili-marinated fish guts), shirako ponzu (cod milt in ponzu) and fugu tempura (puffer fish tempura).
I find it hard to resist crunchy ume kurage (jellyfish seasoned with sour plum) that is addictively sour and sweet, perfect in between gulps of draft beer and orders of food.
My newfound ability to read the menu comes with its own setback. At Nobu-ya, wait staff periodically scurries from table to table most of the night, crossing out items that have just been sold out.
I scramble to order before another wait staff comes my way with a pen in hand.
I’ve had my fill of crispy chicken skin and a warming bowl of flavorful crab miso soup. Peckish but not hungry, I just want to nibble on something while I nurse my drink. Popular items like sashimi and seasonal tempura have long been crossed out by then.
The night is young but shorter these days because pandemic-era regulations in Singapore dictate that the sale and consumption of alcohol must stop by 10.30pm.
I hastily order a second helping of ume kurage and one more mug of Sapporo Draft. It’s not a bad way to start the weekend, as long as I don’t wake up with a hangover the next day.