Natalie Anzivino, at right, is seen with her mom, Maureen, at a recent City Council meeting presenting a banner for the Festival she initiated. (Courtesy Anzivino Family / August 23, 2009)

In honor of its Sister City program with Anjo, Japan, Huntington Beach is hosting a Japanese Cultural Festival on Saturday with all kinds of exotic foods and free family fun.

Huntington Beach High School junior Natalie Anzivino came up with the idea for a festival. After she served as a student ambassador, she realized the Sister City program suffered from a lack of awareness and funding. To get more information on this fascinating event, I asked Natalie a few questions.

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Q: What first gave you the idea for the festival?

A: Last summer I represented Huntington Beach as a student ambassador to our Sister City in Anjo, Japan. The Sister City program changed my life.

Through my involvement, I got to share my city with students from the other side of the world and feel pride in all that my city has to offer, as well as experiencing firsthand living with a family from another culture. The Sister City program has fostered a relationship of reciprocal exchange between our two cities for over 30 years.

Our City Council chamber lobby and conference room, as well as the pagoda that welcomes all visitors to City Hall, are all gifts from Anjo. Once I got involved, I found out that the city of Huntington Beach cut the funding for this program from the city budget, and 100% of the program is supported by volunteers and the families that are selected to host our Japanese students. As you can imagine, this is a very expensive thing for families to volunteer to do and limits the families who are able to participate.

I wanted to do something to bring awareness to the program and hopefully create a source of funding that would make this program viable for years to come.

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Q: What did it entail, pulling it all together?

A: First I met with the (local) Sister City Assn. volunteers and told them about my idea and asked them for help in contacting performers and other Japanese cultural demonstrators. I then had to meet with the city of Huntington Beach to get a health permit, sellers' permit, fire permit and other approvals.

Once everything was approved, I created a website, Facebook page and fliers to promote the event. After that, I presented my festival to Girl Scout troops, the HBHS National Honor Society and other groups to get volunteers to man the booths. This week I presented the festival at the H.B. City Council meeting and am working on getting the word out to the entire city about this great event.

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Q: How was your trip to Japan?

A: I had the time of my life during my trip to Japan. I saw amazing sites and visited several cities, as well as learned the history of Anjo and all the traditions of the Japanese culture.

I tried foods I never thought I would have put in my mouth, and I experienced Japanese lifestyle firsthand. The moments I treasure the most revolved around the time I spent with my student, Chinatsu, and her family.

I loved becoming a member of their everyday lives and being able to connect and relate to one another. I think my favorite event had to be the Anjo Tanabata Festival. Being a guest at the festival, wearing our happi coat, making our Tanabata wishes and meeting friends completed an unforgettable trip.

I was also lucky enough to travel to Tokyo with my student and see the famous Skytree overlooking the entire city. I think that adventure, as well as the world's highest roller coaster, were new heights I never expected to experience.

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Q: What would you like people to know about the festival?

A: The Huntington Beach Japanese Cultural Festival will take place on March 29 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. in Huntington Central Park behind the library at the bandstand among the beautiful cherry blossom trees, which were a gift to our city from our sister city.

There will be a full schedule of performers, from taiko drum to traditional dance and music, to martial arts and even an anime costume contest. We will have Girl Scout troops doing free face-painting and hosting craft and game booths for the kids. One of the highlights of the festival will be the food. We have the Original Ramen Burger coming as well as Samurai Sushi burritos, okonomiyaki Japanese pancakes and Hula Girl shaved ice and fresh mochi for dessert.

(You can see the website Natalie created at http://www.hbjapanesefestival.wix.com/sistercity and the Facebook page at hbjapanesefestival.)

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Student writing contest

It's time for the annual In the Pipeline essay-writing competition. This is the call for any high school student in Huntington Beach, Fountain Valley or Seal Beach to tell me about a special person, place or piece of history in your community.

I'm looking for things or people I might not be able to find on my own. Submit 500 words or less — and photos if you like. Entries are due April 4. The winner will get to cut the ribbon at the spectacular Taste of Huntington Beach on April 27, as well as attend the food festival with family. Send entries to chris@chrisepting.com.

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 19 books, including the new "Baseball in Orange County," from Arcadia Publishing. You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at http://www.facebook.com/hbindependent.