Final word on the year’s best reading

Okinawan music rhapsodized, bloody battles retold, thrilling tales unleashed and Japan's gloom exposed — our favorite books of 2010


Kicking his heels while waiting for a design commission to materialize, English architect Ralph Adams Cram might easily have frittered away his time getting pickled at the bar of the Rokumeikan, or in the perfumed chambers of Yoshiwara, but he chose instead to take to the byways of Meiji Japan on a survey of Japanese construction styles. Cram’s ultimate achievement in this splendid book was in judging Japanese architecture the equal of Western classical design, this at a time when many Japanese were turning their back on their own outstanding heritage.

IMPRESSIONS OF JAPANESE ARCHITECTURE, by Ralph Adams Cram. Tuttle Publishing, 152 pp., $31.75 (paper)
21St CENTURY TOKYO: A Guide to Contemporary Architecture, by Julian Worrall and Erez Golani Solomon. Kodansha International, 233 pp., $20 (paper)

Unlike Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, the Brownstone residences of Brooklyn, or the rock houses of Zanzibar, there are no distinct architectural zones in Tokyo. Scattered across the face of the world’s largest megacity, we must seek out its structural gems one by one.

The creators of this guide profile 83, post-1990 buildings, ranging from office blocks, apartment towers and exhibition spaces to a convenience store, expressway junction, charnel house and pedestrian deck.

THE POWER OF OKINAWA, by John Potter. Ryuei Kikaku, 236 pp., ¥1400 (paper)

Okinawan music authority Potter has made Okinawa his home. The affection is obvious, his empathy for the islanders expressed through a book that is not merely about the sounds of Okinawa but also about the spirit of the place.

The definitive guide to its unique music, the author explores the island’s history and musical roots, profiling the masters of the genre past and present. A personal favorite from his Recommended Albums is “Zan,” a solo recording from Tomoko Uehara, an extraordinarily innovative set of songs featuring distinctive vocals and guest musicians, including Irish fiddler Nollaig Casey and African guitarist Mamadou Doumbia.

In understanding the music of these troubled islands, we come a little closer to the soul of Okinawa.

Stephen Mansfield is a photo-journalist and author of several books.