toyooka hyogo
Hyogo Park of the Oriental White Stork, Toyooka, Hyogo Prefecture 兵庫県立コウノトリの郷公園 豊岡市兵庫県

Toyooka is a rural city in northern Hyogo, off the beaten path from Kobe and Himeji in southern Hyogo. The city’s famous symbol seen everywhere in town is the Oriental white stork or kounotori in Japanese. The storks are elegant birds when soaring in the air with their huge wings spread across. These photos were taken at the Hyogo Park of the Oriental White Stork where you can see them flying around, feeding, and nesting.

Often mistaken for the Japanese crane, the Oriental white stork is a big, beautiful bird with black and white wings and a black bill. Very similar to the European white stork which has a red bill. The wingspan is two meters and they are normally seen in pairs (mates). They are carnivores, feeding on fish, frogs, snakes, rabbits, mice, etc. In Japan, rice paddies with fish and frogs are a major feeding ground.

Once found all over Japan, the Oriental white stork population seriously declined by the 1950s and efforts to protect them started in 1955. Sadly, their efforts ended in failure 30 years later. Pesticides in rice paddies killed the rodents and other creatures they fed on and other environmental problems caused their demise. The bird became extinct in the wild in Japan in 1971. Toyooka was where Japan’s last living Oriental white stork died in captivity in 1986.

Since it was too sad for Japan to not have this beautiful bird anymore, in 1985, six wild Oriental white stork chicks from the USSR (Khabarovsk) were acquired to be raised in Toyooka. From 1989, the birds from Russia started to breed successfully in captivity in Toyooka every year.

The Hyogo Park of the Oriental White Stork in Toyooka leads Japan’s efforts to reintroduce the Oriental stork back into the wild. Since 2005, they started releasing grown Oriental storks into the wild in Toyooka, which was a great celebration. The birds then started to breed and reproduce in the wild. The park has since been releasing a few storks (fewer than five) into the wild almost every year.

As of July 31, 2020, Japan had over 200 Oriental storks in the wild. Over half of them are in Hyogo Prefecture. Some are also successfully nesting and breeding in Tokushima (Naruto), Shimane (Unnan), and Kyoto Prefectures (Kyotango). They have been spotted migrating to all 47 prefectures, as well as to Korea and China.

It’s still an endangered species, with only slightly over 2,000 of them in the Far East. If you ever see an Oriental white stork in the wild outside Hyogo Prefecture, you should take photos of it and note the time and location and report the sighting to the park to help their research and tracking:

With only 200+ of them in the wild in Japan, sighting a stork away from Hyogo would be rare. The best and most convenient place to see the stork would be the Hyogo Park of the Oriental White Stork in Toyooka. It’s a bird sanctuary, college research facility, stork museum, and tourist attraction. The park is in a rural area in the middle of rice paddies near some mountains.

It has video-monitored nesting platforms in spring (lower left photo), feeding pond, stork cage, and a small museum. It guarantees sightings of Oriental white stork with storks in captivity and in the wild. The best time to visit the park is during feeding time at around 9:30 am–10 am when the wild birds descend to snag free meals (bottom right photo).

In the West, storks are commonly depicted delivering human babies to mothers. In Japan, instead of babies, storks supposed to deliver happiness or something important. The Japanese word for stork is “kounotori” which can mean “bird of happiness.”

Because of this meaning, “Kounotori” became the nickname of the expendable cargo spacecraft for delivering supplies and experiments to the International Space Station (ISS). It was developed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA or Japan’s NASA) and used from Sept. 2009 to Aug. 2020. It certainly was a “bird” delivering happiness and important things.

Kounotori was launched on a rocket, released into space, maneuvered to the ISS, then grabbed by the ISS’ robotic arm for docking (middle right photo). After the cargo was unloaded, Kounotori was filled with ISS waste materials and dropped to Earth to burn up during re-entry. After nine launches and cargo spacecrafts, Kounotori was finally retired in Aug. 2020. Kounotori will be replaced with a new cargo spacecraft to launch in 2022. Nickname unknown as of this writing. 🐣

👉Hyogo Park of the Oriental White Stork is open 9:00 am–5:00 pm. Closed Mondays (open if a national holiday and closed the next day instead), December 28th–January 4th. Free admission.
Toyooka is about a 2.5-hour express train ride north of Osaka or Kyoto Station. The park is a short bus ride from JR Toyooka Station (JR San’in Line).

More Oriental white stork photos: