This weekend, 5,000 people are expected to descend on Huntington Beach's Central Park for the third annual Cherry Blossom Festival, which features Japanese food, performances and cultural exhibits.
The festival, which coincides with the blooming of the cherry blossom tree grove in Central Park, is the brainchild of the mother-daughter team Maureen and Natalie Anzivino, who wanted to do something about the lack of funding for Huntington Beach's Sister City arrangement with Anjo, Japan.
The Anzivinos knew firsthand the importance of the sister city relationship, since Natalie had traveled to Anjo as part of Huntington Beach High School's student exchange program.
"It's a really neat program, and my daughter had a great time," Anzivino said. "But the only way they were going to be able to continue was to figure out a way to fund it. So we said, 'Let's do the festival,' and the proceeds would be used to keep the exchange going.
"It's important for me that the opportunity stays available to kids of all economic means, not just the ones who can afford it."
Now in its third year, the festival is anticipated to be bigger than ever, with scheduled activities including taiko drumming, classical and modern Japanese dance, martial arts and a bonsai landscape exhibition.
The event is also expected to feature food vendors including Ramen Burger, Samurai Burrito, Gaja Okonomiyaki, Sakurai Japanese Grill, Meiji Japanese Restaurant and Oki Doki Izakaya Cuisine.
"We have a lot more food vendors this year," Anzivino said. "The food lines got really long in the last couple years."
Since admission is free, the festival raises money for the Sister City Assn. through vendors, who donate a portion of their proceeds, and sponsors, whose names and logos appear on the event brochure. Anzivino said her goal is to raise $10,000 this year — the annual cost of the student exchange program — and is optimistic since she exceeded the amount last year.
Huntington Beach's Sister City Assn. began in 1982 as an extension of President Eisenhower's People to People program, which was aimed at fostering international friendships through educational and cultural activities. The student exchange program started the next year.
"It has far-reaching benefits," said Carmen Erber, president of the Sister City Assn., whose son, Doug Erber, traveled to Anjo with the program in 1984. "He loved it so much that he switched from Spanish to Japanese in college. It changed his whole life. Now he's the president of the Japan America Society of Southern California."
But Erber said the program doesn't get the funding it needs from the city, which is why it's important that the festival makes up some of these costs.
"It's still one of the best-kept secrets in the city," she said. "If you talk to any of the students who have gone, they have nothing but positive things to say."
One of the featured performances of the day will be Nancy Hayata's "Thousand Paper Cranes."
Hayata, a classically trained Japanese dancer, choreographed classical movements to contemporary music. The dance pays homage to the victims of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the U.S. in 1945 and the popular children's book "Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes," which tells the true story of Sadako Sasaki, who was 2 and living in Hiroshima at the time and who succumbed while still young to leukemia caused by radiation poisoning.
"I start by putting my hands to my eyes, which represents people's eyes hurting from the burning of the bomb, then it culminates to a point where I take small cranes on the stage and blow them out toward the audience," she said. "The crane is also an international symbol of peace, and that's my way of saying we need to have world peace."
In addition to helping fund the student exchange program, Anzivino says the festival is an important reminder of the Japanese influence on Huntington Beach history.
"The city of Huntington Beach has a lot of Japanese history," she said, pointing to Historic Wintersburg, a designated national treasure that preserves original buildings from 19th century Japanese settlements, and the Japanese American soldiers from Huntington Beach who fought in World War II.
"We're so used to seeing malls, shopping centers and high-rises," she said. "But really, not that long ago, Huntington Beach was strawberry fields and bean farms. And that was all started by Japanese farmers."