Sneaking obsession: Inside Tokyo's sneaker collector heaven

In a city that has long been one of the global hubs of sneaker collecting, a Nike fan finds himself exhilarated. 

Eight hundred dollars. “That is an awful lot of money to pay for Nike sneakers,” I think as I cradle a pair of rare Air Jordans in a Tokyo shoe shop. But it’s actually not that expensive in the world of sneaker collectors, some of whom are prepared to spend more than $30,000 on particularly difficult-to-find models of Nike or Adidas shoes.

Even for the average sneaker collector, $800 is not an extreme price. Particularly if they see the kicks as a potential investment, something which many rare shoes can be, steadily gaining in value each year.

Nike is at the heart of this as the first company that really tapped into the hoarding of shoes by a subculture of fanatics. It is the dominant brand stocked at Worm, the world-renowned Tokyo sneaker store where I’m standing.

I’m being given a tour by Worm manager Shirahama (pictured above), who has been a devoted sneaker collector for more than a decade. When I ask him how many pairs he owns, he smiles shyly and replies: “Too many.” His hobby is not an unusual one in the Japanese capital.

As the birthplace of Nike and New Balance, the US is the home of sneaker collecting. But Japan has long been one of the global hubs of the subculture. The popularity of sneakers blossomed in Japan in the mid-1990s, when Nike heavily promoted its famous Air Max range in the country.

Where previously sneakers had been worn in Japan primarily for exercise, suddenly they became a fashion accessory and object of obsession among sections of the country’s youth. This was particularly so in Tokyo, Japan’s biggest city and the place where the country’s trends are typically set.

In the latter half of the 1990s and the early 2000s, shops dedicated to selling fashionable sneakers began to multiply in Tokyo. Shirahama remembers this era and the days he spent bouncing from one shop to the next. Like other young men and women, he would visit these stores to stare with lust and hope at the latest sneaker releases as well as rare, older shoes.

Worm specialises in vintage kicks such as these. They are one of close to a dozen niche sneaker shops in Tokyo stocking unique older shoes, differentiating themselves from the many hundreds of mainstream sporting goods stores.

Few cities in the world have such a range of niche sneaker shops, which is why Tokyo is a favourite haunt for collectors from all over the world. Worm is renowned for boasting limited-edition sneakers, particularly Nikes and Jordans, although they also sell the likes of Converse, Adidas, New Balance, Reebok and Vans.

Stepping into Worm is an exhilarating experience for a sneaker fan such as myself. Although I’ve never been a collector, I have spent too many hours online perusing varieties of Nike Air Force One, my personal favourite sneaker of which I’ve owned 20-plus pairs in my adult life.

Worm has on display several styles of Air Force One I’ve never seen before, which keeps me occupied for a good while. Then I pick up the $800 Air Jordan 1s. These are among the most significant shoes in sneaker history. Nike released them in 1985 for Michael Jordan, who then was a 22-year-old in only his second season in the NBA.

Jordan quickly became the greatest basketballer the world has ever witnessed and his eponymous sneaker range turned Nike from a big company into an absolute monster.

In 1994 Nike re-released the Air Jordan 1s. It is one of these re-released versions that I have in my hands. What makes this particular pair sold so expensive is that they are dead stock, the term used for old releases in pristine condition that have been worn.

The sneakers I’m holding have existed for 23 years without ever cushioning a foot. Many such vintage sneakers are never worn at all, kept in their boxes or in display cases by collectors who value their aesthetics far more than their function. 

If this is your thing, then Tokyo is your place. 

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