Western Taito Ward is a paradise for nonconformists who stray off the beaten track. Throughout the incense-scented alleys of Yanaka, and across the parklands of Ueno, it's hard to miss the area's preponderance of "strays"; tourists, artists and the homeless who, with a surprising number of cats, all wander this quintessentially shitamachi (downtown) neighborhood.

The Asakura Choso Museum in Yanaka, a 5-minute stroll from JR Nippori Station, is an excellent place to begin getting the lay of the land, literally and figuratively.

Fumio Asakura (1883-1964), known as the father of modern Japanese sculpture, designed his own residence and studio, which now houses the museum. Displays feature the artist's bronze sculptures, notably "Toki no Nagare (Flow of Time)," a classic work that captures the supple flesh and nonchalant balance of a young woman, and expressive likenesses of some of the 15 or so stray cats Asakura looked after. Many visitors, however, come primarily to study the museum's architecture. The black ferroconcrete atelier visible from the street sequesters inside a breathtaking home in the sukiya (traditional aesthetic) style, arranged around a courtyard garden and spring-fed pond.