City's first Japanese festival wins high marks

City's first Japanese festival wins high marks
Members of Daion Taiko, from the Orange County Buddhist Church in Anaheim, perform during the Huntington Beach Sister City Japanese Cultural Festival on Saturday in Central Park. (SCOTT SMELTZER, HB Independent)

Central Park was a bustling hub as the Huntington Beach Sister City Assn. hosted its first Japanese Cultural Festival, which was organized by an ambitious high school student.

Hundreds of people gathered at the park Saturday were greeted by the sound of resonant taiko drums, the sight of traditional Japanese dances and the smell of various Japanese foods.


Attendees had the option of buying a super-sized sushi roll or a heaping plate of nachos topped with spicy tuna from Samurai Burrito of Fountain Valley or a plate of steaming pork okonomiyaki — a Japanese pancake — from Gaja Moc in Lomita.

The food vendors saw plenty of foot traffic, but many of the hungry waited for nearly two hours to get their hands on the phenomenon that is the ramen burger.


Huntington Beach resident Tammy Green, 32, checked her watch and said she had waited for an hour and 37 minutes for a ramen burger with cheese.

"I love it," she said after taking a bite. "I'm a huge ramen fan and a huge burger fan, so I'm really enjoying it."

As Green savored the rest of her burger, the calming harmonies from a large ukulele band serenaded the parkgoers.

"It's a sunny day, and there's a cultural exchange going on," said visitor Jim Taglieri. "It does not get any better than this."


The festivities were the brainchild of Natalie Anzivino, a 17-year-old junior at Huntington Beach High School and a Girl Scout who participated in the 2013 Sister City Assn.'s Youth Exchange last summer.

She and three other students traveled to Anjo, Japan, for two weeks to experience Japanese culture.

Natalie came up with the idea of a festival as a way to earn her Girl Scout Gold Award, but mainly she wanted to share her experiences with the people of Huntington Beach as well as highlight the Sister City Assn. and the Japanese community.

"I thought this would be a great way to connect all that in one place," she said.

Huntington Beach resident Mary Urashima also sees the event as a way to educate the public about the Japanese American community in Orange County.

"The more we share and learn about each other, the more we develop a positive relationship," she said. "It benefits all of us and builds true understanding."

It took months of preparation to get the performers and food vendors lined up for Saturday's event. Natalie admitted that it was a bit of a stretch when she reached out to the creators of the ramen burger to see if they would set up a stand in Huntington Beach.

The odds of getting the highly sought burger to Surf City seemed bleak at first, since ramen burger creator Keizo Shimamoto was busy trying to open brick-and-mortar restaurants around the country.


Then Jeff Shimamoto, Keizo's brother, received a call from Natalie's mother, who asked if the two could participate in the festival.

Jeff said he couldn't resist the opportunity of the brothers coming back to where they grew up.

"We're both from Huntington Beach, and we went to Edison High School," Jeff said. "So when [Natalie's mother] contacted me and asked if we wanted to come back to Huntington Beach for an event, I said, 'Absolutely, it's our hometown.'"

Sister City Assn. member George Erber said the event was a great success, estimating that 2,000 to 3,000 people attended.

Though the costs are still being tallied — some performers and restaurants participated for free — Erber said the organization is planning on scheduling another festival next year and making Natalie's project an annual event.

"Why not? At least we've got credibility going into it," Erber said. "When you don't have that while putting on an event such as this, it's a little harder. But we were able to do it. We have more members who are now really into it."