Reviving Japan’s once-extinct stork population is not just a story of conservation in the city of Toyooka, Hyogo Prefecture. It is also the tale of a provincial region reinventing itself to prevent its population following the species into endangered status.

In common with many regions nationwide, Toyooka has suffered from emigration and the loss of prosperity to bigger urban areas.

Facing the Sea of Japan and thickly forested, Toyooka boasts a range of tourist spots, including ski slopes and the Kinosaki hot springs. But of its approximately 85,000 residents, over 28 percent are aged 65 or over, it reports on its website.

Toyooka is now trying to make a bigger splash in tourism. It is promoting itself not only as a nature-rich sanctuary for a rare bird but also as a regional center of performing arts and a manufacturing hub for high-quality bags. Toyooka already attracts 4.7 million tourists annually, the city says.

Visitors arriving by air land at Konotori Tajima Airport (konotori means stork), and a 15-minute drive takes them to a conservation area where wild storks hunt for prey in rice paddies.

There is no shortage of education and entertainment offerings for stork lovers, with easy access to such facilities as the Hyogo Park of the Oriental White Stork, where storks are bred in captivity, and the Toyooka Municipal Museum for Oriental White Stork.

Around 300,000 tourists visit the preservation area each year, according to a museum official.

Toyooka is the place where Japan’s last known wild oriental white stork died in 1971. Some were captured and kept for an artificial breeding project that ended in failure.

In 1985 young birds were imported from Russia, and the stork population in Toyooka has now recovered to around 170 birds. Of these, around 80 are in the wild and 90 are in captivity in preparation for release, the city says.

To make Toyooka an oasis for storks, organic farming is promoted to ensure that the farmland remains rich in the small creatures that the bird feeds on. Crops grown through this stork-friendly farming have been named “stork rice,” and the stork brand fetches a premium over ordinary rice.

“The rice is delicious and the harvest is rich,” said Akihisa Sezaki, a municipal official. “We are hoping to spread this farming method across the country.”

Toyooka is also tapping its cultural heritage as it seeks to become a vibrant region.

Early in the 20th century, the Eirakukan theater near the former Izushi-jo castle thrived as kabuki shows and yose vaudeville performances drew crowds. Eirakukan was later converted into a cinema, before being closed in 1964. But in 2008, Eirakukan was restored as a theater for kabuki and other plays to bring back vigor to the community.

In April 2014, the Kinosaki International Arts Center was opened to provide a stage for dance and other performing arts and also to bring together Japanese and foreign cultures. Through its artists-in-residence program, the center invites artists from around the world to stay for extended periods in Toyooka and enrich their creative imagination through experiencing life in Japan.

Last year, 500 artists from 26 organizations spent time at the center, including award-winning actress Irene Jacob. The cosmopolitan air of the center mingles with the traditional atmosphere of the nearby Kinosaki spa, as foreign artists staying at the center are sometimes spotted bathing at the springs.

Toyooka is also highlighting its prowess in bag manufacturing as part of its community rejuvenation initiative. The 62 bag manufacturers in the city make some ¥10 billion worth of bags annually, accounting for around 70 percent of the overall production of nonleather bags in Japan.

An old shopping area has been renovated as “bag street,” featuring around a dozen bag shops.

Previously, Toyooka’s bag manufacturers mostly made bags for U.S. and European brands. However, emphasizing their hometown roots, they are now working together to push the Toyooka brand.

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