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What does Ushima mean?

In Japanese History on August 31, 2015 at 6:20 am

牛島
Ushima (cow/ox island)

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Today’s article is a bit of whimsy. I want to investigate some really obscure and unknown aspects of Japanese religion that tangentially hit on the history of Edo-Tōkyō. In my article on 向島 Mukōjima, I mentioned that one of the theories is that there were a collection of islands (or more likely sandbars in a flood plain) dotting the east bank of the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River. According to this story, these were collectively called mukōjima “the islands on the other side of the river” by the people of the west bank who lived in 浅草 Asakusa. Today I want to talk about the name 牛島 Ushima Cow Island[i]. It’s not preserved as an official place name today, but there is shrine in Mukōjima that bears the name. It’s a quite ancient name – possibly as ancient as Asakusa[ii].

Eat more chikin, bitches

Eat mor chikin, bitches

As I’ve said many times before, the west bank of the 大川 Ōkawa the Great River (as this stretch of the river was known as in the Edo Period) had been fairly developed since the Heian Period. It got a major boost with the rise of the 鎌倉幕府 Kamakura Bakufu Kamakura Shōgunate in the 1200’s and was one of the few shining centers of art and commerce in the Edo area in those early days. The area really rose to prominence with the establishment of the 江戸幕府 Edo Bakufu Edo Shōgunate in the early 1600’s by the 徳川家 Tokugawa-ke Tokugawa family.

As I said earlier, today there isn’t any area officially called Ushima, but prior to the Meiji Period, there was an area of present day 墨田区本所 Sumida-ku Honjo Honjo, Sumida Ward that was referred to by that name. The east bank of the river was essentially grassland, even during most of the Edo Period this side of the river was relatively rustic[iii]. During the Asuka Period and Nara Period[iv], the grounds on the flood plains of the eastern bank of the Sumida River were used for grazing cattle. Thus the area came to be called 牛島 Ushijima Cow Island – a name that was eventually contracted to Ushima[v].

A stone lantern at Ushima Shrine circa 1868.

A stone lantern at Ushima Shrine circa 1868.

Look familiar?

Look familiar?

Asakusa is the Rockstar of the Area, but…

Meanwhile, on the west bank of the Sumida River, in 628 or 645[vi] (the Asuka Period) Sensō-ji was founded in Asakusa Village. Sensō-ji was a key temple in the area and it was pivotal in the spreading of Buddhism in the Kantō area. In the 850’s (Heian Period), a famous itinerant monk who had recently studied Buddhism in China visited Sensō-ji to view the secret image of Buddha that was alleged fished out of a stretch of the river and is the alleged raison d’être of the great temple. That monk was a certain 慈覚大師 Jikaku Daishi[vii] and he is about to play the biggest part of the Ushima story.

Jikaku Daishi

Jikaku Daishi

The story goes that Jikaku Daishi, who had been studying Buddhism in China, was ejected from the country during the Great Buddhism Purge of 845 and forced to return to Japan. Upon his return he visited various centers of Buddhism in the country to share his knowledge and engage in philosophical discussions with other monks. While visiting a hermitage called 一草庵 Issōan, Jikaku Daishi took a walk and happened upon an old man. The old man told him that he should build a shrine to protect the local people on the east bank of the Sumida River. The old man then revealed that he was an incarnation of the Shintō 神 kami deity named 須佐之男命 Susano’o no Mikoto.

Susano’o no Mikoto

Susano’o no Mikoto

Wait. Whaaaa?!!

You may be scratching your head now. Buddhism builds temples to reflect upon enlightened souls… or something like that. Shintō builds shrines to house 神 kami deities[viii]… or something like that. At the very least, these are just 2 distinct belief systems!

Long time readers should be well aware that Japanese religions – and polytheistic religions in general – tend to be syncretic. This means they are open to blending, mixing and matching, and picking and choosing. Roman religion was like this prior to Christianity and is probably the best example I can think of in terms of western syncretism. In short, while for some people Buddhism and Shintō may have been diametrically opposed to one another in many ways; for the most part both can accommodate each other. Indeed, until a Meiji Era imperial decree separating Buddhism and Shintō[ix], the two faiths were essentially in bed together. Other faiths like 庚申 Kōshin[x] flourished in conjunction with Buddhism and Shintō. It was all one spiritual tapestry. A Buddhist founding a Shintō shrine was nothing out of the ordinary.

2 diagrams of typical Kōshin statues

2 diagrams of typical Kōshin statues. The Kōshin faith is neither Shintō nor Buddhist, but rather Taoist.

But Back To Ushima

Jikaku Daishi set about founding a shrine on the east bank of the Sumida River in the Ushima area. The name of the original shrine was 牛御前社 Ushi Gozen-sha[xi]. It was built sometime between 859 and 879[xii]. Keep in mind, this all went down in the 800’s. If the Tokugawa Shōgunate hadn’t been established in the 1600’s, Sensō-ji may have remained the temple with the largest influence in the area until today.

The wishes of the old man that Jikaku Daishi encountered were that the shrine would protect the people on the east bank of the Sumida River. The shrine would become home to the 本所総鎮守 Honjo sō-chinju the tutelary kami of the entire Honjo area. The west bankers had their Sensō-ji but the people on the east bank needed a tutelary kami[xiii], too. The Sumida River even had its own deity[xiv]. So the people who lived in the eastern flood plain needed equal protection from the powerful river god.

Ushi Gozen-sha on the banks of the Sumida River in the Edo Period.

Ushi Gozen-sha on the banks of the Sumida River in the Edo Period.

The Gods of Ushi Gozen-sha

Ushi Gozen-sha didn’t only enshrine one deity. It enshrined 3 specific kami to protect the people of Honjo (present Mukōjima). Let’s take a quick look at these 3 kami.

須佐之男命
Susano’o no Mikoto

a major kami associated with rough seas and summer storms (typhoons)[xv]

天之穂日命
Ame no Hohi no Mikoto[xvi]

a minor kami with close ties to Susano’o no Mikoto[xvii]

貞辰親王命
Sadatoki Shin’ō no Mikoto

my understanding is that this is the kami of an imperial prince whose death coincided with the construction of the shrine[xviii]

At the beginning of the Edo Period, the 3rd shōgun, 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu began to patronize the shrine as the Tokugawa family came down to their beautiful palace where the river met the bay. In its time, it must have been a gorgeous villa with a spectacular view of the sea.

Iemitsu called for a secondary shrine to be created. That shrine was called 若宮牛嶋神社 Wakamiya Ushima Jinja Wakamiya Ushima Shrine[xix]. It is a 20 minute walk from Ushima Shrine to Wakamiya Ushima Shrine. During the shrines’ festival on 9/15, the kami is carried in a 神輿 mikoshi portable shrine from Ushima Shrine in Mukōjima to Wakamiya Ushima Shrine in Honjo.

This is roughly the route from Ushima Shrine to Wakamiya Ushima Shrine.

This is roughly the route from Ushima Shrine to Wakamiya Ushima Shrine.

Sadly, both shrines were completely destroyed in the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake in 1923. For some reason, the main shrine was relocated and rebuilt a little bit south at its present location[xx]. In the Meiji Period, the rank of the shrine was officially demoted by the government to the status of 郷社 gōsha village shrine[xxi]. Like many shrines and temples that didn’t fully recover after the earfquake and/or WWII, Ushijima Shrine is clearly a shadow of its former glory. But it’s not as dismal as, say, Shiogama Shrine, and its summer festival still draws substantial crowds.

This monument marks the former location of the shrine.

This monument marks the former location of the shrine.

As for the place name, Ushima has all but vanished from Tōkyō’s civil administration and postal code system. Mukōjima and Honjo have superseded officially. But today the shrine sits in the shade enjoying its quiet solitude. It eschews the modern writing, 牛島 Ushima, for the pre-Modern writing, 牛嶋 Ushima. While the city has moved on and Sensō-ji has grown in fame and Tōkyō Skytree has become yet another symbol of a city replete with symbols, Ushima Shrine proudly holds on to its former glory as the protector of the people on the east bank of the Sumida River.If you’re interested further reading, I have related articles:

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[i] Could be “ox” island, too. The Japanese is ambiguous.
[ii] The name 浅草 Asakusa is without a doubt much older than 浅草寺 Sensō-ji Sensō Temple (literally, Asakusa Temple). See my article on Asakusa.
[iii] This is why the 隅田川御殿 Sumida-gawa Goten Sumida River Palace was built by the shōguns here – they had plenty of space for private villa.
[iv] And presumably later, too.
[v] Because syllables are hard.
[vi] Depending on what you consider the foundational act. See my article on Asakusa.
[vii] He is best known in Japan by his 諡号 shigō (okurigō) posthumous name, Jikaku Daishi. His name as a monk was 円仁 Ennin.  He was born into the 壬生氏 Mibu-shi Mibu clan of 下野国 Shimozuke no Kuni Shimozuke Province which is modern day 栃木県 Tochigi-ken Tochigi Prefecture. Jikaku Daishi means Great Teacher of Merciful Enlightenment (satori).
[viii] Kami isn’t a word that translates easily into English. The English language has spent most of its life with a Judeo-Christian backdrop, ie; Abrahamic monotheism. If you want to understand more about the concept of kami, here is a good place to start.
[ix] Read more about the policy here.
[x] This is a totally unrelated article, but I talk about the Kōshin faith in my article on Gohongi.
[xi] Another reading is Ushi Gozen-ja. The name means something like “revered shrine in front of the cows.” Unfortunately, I can’t find any information on the etymology of the original shrine name, but the area’s name of Ushima seems to have had much more influence than the name of the shrine.
[xii] The few surviving documents only list the 年号 nengō era name 貞観年間 Jōgan nenkan (859-879). I rarely use nengō on this site, but here’s Wiki’s explanation of them.
[xiii] Tutelary deity/tutelary kami means a deity who looks out for your best interests and protects you.
[xiv] See my article on Suijin.
[xv] Here’s the Wiki on him.
[xvi] Sometimes rendered as Ama no Hohi no Mikoto.
[xvii] Check out the story here.
[xviii] In Japanese they say 胡麻刷り goma suri brown nosing. In this case, the shōgunate was placating the increasingly irrelevant 朝廷 chōtei imperial court in Kyōto.
[xix] 若宮 wakamiya mean “young prince” and often indicates an auxiliary shrine.
[xx] If you walk a bit north, there is a commemorative sign that marks the original location of the shrine.
[xxi] That means, it wasn’t the tutelary kami of the Honjo area – presumably because it was absorbed into the Mukōjima area.

What does Mukōjima mean?

In Japanese History on August 13, 2015 at 7:21 am

向島
Mukōjima (island/s over there)

Take a good look at this map. You're gonna have to refer to it a lot.

Take a good look at this map. You’re gonna have to refer to it a lot.

Mukōjima is a postal address in 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward. It’s located on the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River, directly across from 浅草 Asakusa. Most tourists who visit Asakusa and check out the river have probably seen Mukōjima and didn’t even bat an eye. Today, it doesn’t look like much from that vantage point. After all, Asakusa is so lively and in every guidebook. On the surface, the area seems to be decidedly 下町 shitamachi low city, but if you dig a little deeper this town will give up some surprising secrets.

First, Let’s Look at the Etymology

The meaning of the name is obscure, but 2 theories exist. They’re both very similar and they’re both more or less plausible.  The word itself is written with two kanji.


mukō,
mukai

over there,
facing


shima

island
The Sumida-gawa Palace

The Sumida-gawa Palace

One theory is based on the fact that the Tokugawa shōguns had a detached palace in the area.  The site was called 隅田川御殿 Sumida-gawa Goten Sumida River Palace and it was located on the newly developed lands across from Asakusa, the prosperous town surrounding 浅草寺 Sensō-ji Sensō Temple[i]. To the northwest of the property, the 内川 Uchikawa, literally the “Inner River”[ii], (a stretch of the 古隅田川 Furusumida-gawa, literally the “Old Sumida River[iii]) flowed into the Sumida. According to this theory, an island or fairly large sandbar lay at this confluence to northwest and was said to be called 将軍の向島 shōgun no mukōjima the shōgun’s island over there. Naturally, the people using that phrase were the inhabitants of Asakusa on the other side of the river.

A seafood restaurant in Mukōjima famous for serving 鯉 (carp)

A seafood restaurant in Mukōjima famous for serving 鯉 (carp)

A second similar theory states that before the coming of the Tokugawa and the massive waterworks projects undertaken by the shōgunate[iv], the east bank of the Sumida River in this area was littered with sandbars and islands. Over time, these islands were reclaimed and incorporated into the expanding city. Some of these islands were big enough to have names – many of which still persist to a certain extent today: 牛島 Ushima (cow island), 柳島 Yanagijima (willow island), 寺島Terajima (temple island – remember this name). It’s said that the people living on the west bank (ie; Asakusa) collectively referred to these islands with one name: 向島 mukōjima the islands over there.

Both theories were first recorded in the Edo Period, but I find the reference to the Tokugawa a bit suspect. I don’t know why; it’s just a gut feeling. I find the “pre-Edo Period” theory more convincing. Again, I don’t know why; it’s just a gut feeling. But with a few other place names in the area referencing islands (島 shima), it doesn’t seem to be unreasonable that the people who lived along the river might do such a thing.

Shamisen players relaxing at a sushi stand on the bank of the Sumida River in Mukōjima.

Shamisen players relaxing at a sushi stand on the bank of the Sumida River in Mukōjima.

In the Edo Period, the area was famous for its natural beauty. People came here to enjoy the seasonal changes. There are many 浮世絵 ukiyo-e prints of people relaxing in the area. At this time, Mukōjima was just a popular name for the area. However, in 1891, the name Mukōjima was made official. Since that time the area has changed a lot. Today, the area has a lot to offer and if you have enough money, you might be able to spend the whole day there in style.

Now, Let’s Look at the Area Today

mukojima desu

Mukōjima Hyakkka-en

One of the most famous places in the area is 百花園 Hyakkka-en “the 100 flower park.” The park was built by a wealthy antiques dealer from 仙台藩 Sendai Han Sendai Domain named 佐原鞠塢 Sahara Kikū. He ran a store in 日本橋 Nihonbashi and hobnobbed with various 大名 daimyō feudal lords[v]. He represented the new breed of wealthy merchants and commoners that arose in the late Edo Period. He was highly educated, cultured, and had tastes that ran the gamut of both the nouveaux riches and the elite samurai class.

He purchased the 多賀屋敷 Taga yashiki Taga residence in 寺島村 Terajima Mura Terajima Village (a name we saw earlier) and in 1804 he converted it into a flower garden, originally called 花屋敷 Hana Yashiki the Flower Mansion. The concept of the garden was very different from the daimyō gardens of the Edo Period. It reflected the new sensibilities of the emerging rich commoners who found themselves with more leisure time and were developing a cultural esthetic distinct from the conservative styles preferred by the stagnating samurai class.

hyakka-en

His concept was simple: 春夏秋冬不断 shunkashūtō fudan consistency throughout the seasons. Flowers were chosen from Classical Japanese and Classical Chinese poetry in order to amass a collection of flowers that would constantly bloom in turn throughout the seasons. Unlike the subdued and stoic daimyō gardens, it was vibrant, flashy, and always changing. The garden also wasn’t hidden behind high walls like a daimyō mansion, but could be visited by anyone with the right connections[vi]. The garden’s fame was so great that in March of 1829, the Party Shōgun, 将軍家斉 Tokugawa Ienari, visited – no doubt in the company of a gaggle of beauties from the 大奥 Ōoku the shōgun’s harem. The garden was sold to東京市 Tōkyō-shi Tōkyō City in 1938 and was officially opened to the public in 1939. By some accounts, it is the only Edo Period flower garden of its kind that still exists.

hyakka-en2

Japanese Sweets

There are 2 types of 和菓子 wagashi Japanese sweets that originated in the area. The first is called 言問団子 Kototoi Dango and the second is called 桜餅 sakura mochi.

Kototoi Dango

Kototoi Dango is both the name of a shop in Mukōjima and the product they specialize in. Their main product is 団子 dango dango that comes in three flavors: white anko, red anko, and miso. The shop was established by a gardening teacher, 外山佐吉 Toyama Sakichi – a commoner – in the late Edo Period. The name Kototoi is a reference to a bridge located downstream from the original shop called 言問橋 Kototoibashi Kototoi Bridge. The shop’s dango became popular with the people who came to the area to watch fireworks along the Sumida River. Since people from all over the shōgun’s capital came to see the annual event, the dango from this shop’s reputation spread quickly. You can see the shop’s website here

Kototoi dango

Kototoi dango

Chōmeiji Sakura Mochi

Sakura mochi is a kind of Japanese sweet that is flavored with cherry blossom leaves. There are many variations throughout Japan, but it generally boils down to 2 main styles: 関東風 Kantō-fū Kantō Style and 関西風 Kansai-fū Kansai Style. Of course, both regions claim to have invented the snack in an attempt to have bragging rights over a food made with cherry blossoms, a symbol of Japan[vii]. But eff that noise. Let’s just talk about some Mukōjima yumminess,

These little bad boys are called 長命寺桜餅 Chōmeiji sakura mochi cherry blossom mochi named after Chōme-ji, a temple located on the Sumida River[viii]. The temple is near Kototoi Dango. This temple may also be connected to the “temple island” that I mentioned earlier, Terajima.

It seems the shopkeepers living in the 門前町 monzen-chō town built up around a temple[ix] began collecting cherry blossoms that fell from trees along the river in the 1690’s and started using them to flavor various foods to sell to people who to the area for 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing. In 1717, local shops began selling this special sakura mochi in front of the temple. This year also coincided with a decree to plant more cherry blossoms along this section of the Sumida River by 8th shōgun, 徳川吉宗 Tokugawa Yoshimune[x]. The new style of mochi was an instant hit with the hanami goers and just as Kototoi Dango’s reputation spread far and wide quickly, so did that of Chōmeiji sakura mochi. Various shops in the area sell this specialty today.

Chōmeiji Sakura Mochi

Chōmeiji Sakura Mochi

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Mukōjima is Tōkyō’s Biggest Geisha District

Unless you already knew this, I’ll bet you didn’t see this one coming.

Ryōtei are exclusive dining establishments that provide geisha entertainment.

Ryōtei are exclusive dining establishments that provide geisha entertainment.

Mukōjima is home to a 花街 kagai[xi] a geisha district (literally “flower town”). The area was famous for its nature and greenery in the Edo Period but the rise of the nouveaux riches began to have an effect on the area. This effect would soon transform the area.

Because of the influx of new money and the rise of industry during the Meiji Period, a unique geisha culture emerged in Mukōjima. The demand for geisha was high among men of means in the newly renamed city (Edo→Tōkyō).  The area was particularly popular with artists, poets, and novelists in the early 1900’s.

mukojima geisha

Unfortunately, most of Tōkyō’s geisha culture fizzled out after the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake and the firebombing of WWII. But for some reason Mukōjima managed to hold on to the tradition[xii]. To this day, there are many 料亭 ryōtei located in the area. Ryōtei are high end dining venues that have the space, the setting, the pedigree, and the connections to provide entertainment by geisha. Many establishments won’t accept new customers without an introduction by a current customer or a trusted acquaintance of the owner. In general, such indulgences are extremely cost prohibitive, but there are occasional cheesy bus tours that will give you a glimpse into the world.

Yes, those are real geisha. And no, geisha babies are not called

Yes, those are real geisha. And no, geisha babies are not called “gaybies” so please don’t e-mail me asking about that.

At its peak, they say more than 1000 geisha operated in the area and there were anywhere from 100-200 shops providing entertainment to high end clientele. Today those numbers are much smaller. It’s said there are a little over 100 geisha who regularly perform in Mukōjima and the number of ryōtei is well under 20[xiii]. All of this notwithstanding, Mukōjima is Tōkyō’s largest extant geisha town today. In the early evening, you will probably see geisha scurrying around and if you have the money – I most definitely don’t[xiv] – you can enjoy their service, entertainment, and a little taste of Edo.

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[i] Asakusa had had a decent population since the Kamakura Period.
[ii] Rivers tended to be called different things in different areas. So the Sumida River, being a very long river, had many names in different locations. Each tributary also had a different name, despite being part of the same river basin. You can read more about this in my article on the Sumida River.
[iii] A former branch of the Sumida River that originated in present day Saitama Prefecture, but is now is separated from the river that is currently called the Sumida River.
[iv] The shōgunate modified the courses of rivers, built moats, diverted channels, and all manner of waterworks… and guess who wrote a series on it.
[v] He was most likely lending daimyō money, too. This meant they would have given him access to all sorts of opportunities that might not have been available to other commoners in order to keep his favor. If you want to know more about merchants lending daimyō money, check out this article.
[vi] The “right connections” seems to have meant influential writers, poets, artists, geisha – any kind of cultured commoners with money and influence, really – and even daimyō who had a taste for the vibrancy of the late Edo Period.
[vii] The deep association of cherry blossoms as a symbol of the samurai is particularly strong in Edo-Tōkyō because of the samurai government. That said, I’m pretty sure everyone likes cherry blossoms, so that particular pro-Edo argument is a little weak to me. However, I’m not interested in that debate at all.
[viii] The temple’s foundation date is unclear. It may date back to the Heian Period but it only date back to the 1590’s, when 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu entered Edo. What is known for sure is that the temple received the patronage of the Tokugawa Shōgunate during the reign of the 3rd shōgun, 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu.
[ix] Monzen-chō, literally “towns at the front of the temple gate,” popped up to cash in on the needs of pilgrims, funeral mourners, and the casual visitors who would stop by out of curiosity – in this case, cherry blossom viewers. People needed food, lodging, and other services and thus special economies developed around temples. See my article on Monzen-Nakachō.
[x] Yoshimune was made shōgun the same year. The sudden arrival of this new local product may have its roots in many causes. The new shōgun’s decree offered a kind of novelty – why buy some ordinary, stupid snack, when you can buy the new taste of the year? It also showed respect to the new shōgun – thanks for sending all this business our way – more cherry blossoms means more tourists in the spring. And the list goes on…
[xi] 花街 is read as hanamachi in Kyōto. Kagai is the 音読み on’yomi Chinese reading of the kanji. Hanamachi is the 訓読み kun’yomi Japanese reading of the kanji. Apparently, the plosives  /ka/ and /ga/ of the on’yomi have generally been perceived as harsh and uncouth by speakers of 京都弁 Kyōto-ben the Kyōto Dialect. To this day, the guardians of the highest register of that dialect are the geisha of the former imperial capital. For their sensibilities, apparently the on’yomi, hanamachi rolls off the tongue much more smoothly. Interestingly, hanamachi uses an affricative // and nasal sounds /ma/ and /ɴ/. Removing the plosive sounds means the risk of spitting on a person is lower and the use of nasals makes the vowels clearer. Some westerners complain about girls making announcements outside of shops as being annoying and nasal (for the record, I like this). They’re unwittingly favoring the clearer nasal sounds that highlight vowels and make their voices travel farther. It’s just my speculation, but this may have roots in the female speech of Kyōto.
[xii] Akasaka, due to its proximity to the National Diet Building, had a geisha district in the Edo Period. There is still a geisha culture there. The modern geisha are said to be extremely skilled and talented, but in the Edo Period and early Meiji Period the term “Akasaka Geisha” referred to the geisha of the lowest quality in the city. It was essentially a euphemism for a prostitute or a geisha so unskilled she might as well just be a whore. Today, Akasaka is home to many hostess bars of various qualities. Many of the proprietresses of certain long running establishments arrange “night time liaisons” between the working girls and the male clients. It’s said that this is a legacy of the image of the “Akasaka Geisha.” First, if this is a real legacy, it might be hard to prove. I suspect it’s just romanticizing history to justify the modern business model. And second, a hostess isn’t a geisha – or a prostitute, for that matter. Any blurred lines are things that individuals agree to do outside of the actual job descriptions.
[xiii] Some venues that are not ryōtei provide plebian-focused geisha performances for tourist groups. It’s my understanding that they are not included in the “official count.”
[xiv] It’s sad really. Being entertained by geisha is on my bucket list, but it’s about as realistic a dream as a threesome with Perfume. Yes, I said threesome. A-chan isn’t invited.

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