Player’s Cafe part of old town Koza revival on Okinawa
Stars and Stripes January 5, 2023
Player’s Café is a classy yet unpretentious bar and restaurant in Koza, a formerly distressed area of central Okinawa.
The establishment offers food, drinks and lodging in an up-and-coming urban section of the island.
Patrons can relax in comfort and, on some nights, listen to live music surrounded by remnants of Koza’s history, which is tied to American culture and Okinawan tradition.
Player’s Café opened in 1999 in the area formerly known as Koza town, now officially part of Okinawa city. It’s a short walk from the back gate to Kadena Air Base, familiar to service members as Gate 2 Street.
After World War II, bars and restaurants catering to Americans sprang up in the area as locals took to the American culture spilling off nearby bases. Jazz bands flooded the town, which existed from 1956 to 1974, soon giving way to rock acts like Condition Green and Murasaki.
The area peaked during the Vietnam-era when the island served as a way station for troops and equipment heading to Southeast Asia.
After the war, the boom times quelled as the U.S. consolidated its island bases and troop levels fell drastically. Starting in 2020, COVID-19 kept service members and their families and U.S. civilian employees confined to their homes and bases.
But the old Koza area has turned around in the past year. Young, hip entrepreneurs are back in business since Japan reopened for foreign tourists in 2022.
The shopping arcade off Gate 2 Street is buzzing. Park Avenue Dori, a strip mall connected to the arcade, is also seeing a revival, illuminated by the bright lights of the Player’s Café’s façade.
The café recently underwent an extensive remodel and upgrade with the addition of comfortable armchairs and bar stools, amplifiers, guitars and framed photos from Koza’s past.
The café is also the lounge and front-desk area for Tripshot Hotels Koza. Tripshot’s 10 lofts are dotted along the street in recently renovated, previously vacant second-floor rooms.
The rooms are chic and inviting, appointed with warm woods, concrete and black panel chalkboards. But this new venture takes nothing away from the café.
Player’s features a standard menu of drinks and cocktails, from ginger ale and mango juice for 400 yen, or just about $3, to the house wine for 600 yen. Cocktails like rum and Coke or a Moscow mule cost 600 yen. Draft and bottled beer, Okinawan awamori, Japanese sake and whiskey are also available.
The food menu has changed over time and seems to be in flux at the moment, with only a few classic items available on a night in late-December. The kitchen offered spicy chicken for 780 yen, french fries and edamame for 500 yen each, and a small personal pizza for 800 yen.
For something a bit heavier, try the pork cutlet or Jamaican jerk chicken sandwiches with potato chips and cole slaw for 800 yen.
The cutlet sandwich was crispy with a light drizzle of pasta sauce. The jerk chicken spices tangoed with the mayonnaise dressing to light up the taste buds. The chicken was cooked perfectly, juicy and succulent.
Player’s personal-sized pizza appeared store-bought but was crispy and delicious just the same. Its over-abundance of cheese stretched from mouth to slice with each bite.
The bartender’s spumoni was colorful and blended perfectly, with nary a hint of alcohol.
Player’s Café won’t win a Michelin star for food anytime soon, but the food and drinks were delicious and worth the price of admission. The warmth and comfort of the space are world class.
Player’s is the perfect place to meet friends, break bread, share a few laughs and celebrate the resurgence of a once-proud town.
Location: 2-chōme-6-47 Chūō, Okinawa, 904-0004, or GPS 26.338912631326554, 127.80024262642046.
Directions: From Gate 2, Kadena Air Base, take a left at Koza Music Town onto Route 330. After just less than a half-mile, turn left on Park Avenue Dori. Player’s Cafe is on the left. Parking lots are just past the restaurant on the right. Follow the signs.
Hours: Open 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Wednesday through Monday.
Prices: Drinks range from soft drinks for 400 yen to a bottle of awamori for 3,000 yen. Food costs between 500 and 800 yen.
Information: Call 098-929-1169 or check online at koza.tripshot-hotels.com.