The steamy adventures of a sauna addict
Finns think that their millennia-old saunas are the best in the world, so embrace the heat and sweat when you're in their country
Even if your sense of direction is as hopeless as mine, it is not hard, as I discovered, to find Kotiharjun, Helsinki’s oldest and only remaining public traditional wood-fired sauna. Google Maps said I could go to the Helsinki University Metro station and take the M1 towards Vuosaari; get off at the Sörnäinen station in the bohemian Kallio area; and then walk a few minutes to reach my destination. I’m always disoriented when I get out of any underground station and almost invariably start walking in the wrong direction. This time too I bumbled along, trying to find Harjutorinkatu, the street on which the sauna is located.
I needn’t have worried. As I turned into a street, I saw a bunch of men clad only in towels milling about on the sidewalk with beers in hand. They were taking chilling breaks from the heat of the sauna. It was late afternoon, 8 degrees Celsius and cloudy. I had arrived.
The sauna ritual at Kotiharjun is simple. I pay €13 (around Rs1,000) at the reception and get a key for a locker. And rent a towel for €3. For another 30 cents, I get a disposable seat-cover. Armed with these, I’m all set. There are separate changing rooms for men and women; I strip off all my clothes, put them in a locker, and take a shower before entering the sauna.
Kotiharjun, built in 1928, has three saunas—one for men; another for women; and a third, private one that can be booked for families or meetings. The men’s sauna is large, dark and pinewood-walled, and the first thing that hits you is the blast of heat from the huge stove in the middle with burning timber topped with smouldering stones, and the strangely appealing smell of wood smoke. There’s tiered seating around the stove, with the uppermost tier being the hottest. Temperatures in the sauna range from 75-100 degrees Celsius depending on how much hot steam is being generated, but we’ll come to that in a bit.
There were around 10 men in the sauna when I entered, all buck naked. One burly, red-bearded guy was splashing water on the stove from a löylykiulu (wooden bucket) with a löylykauha (scoop). Löyly is Finnish for the steam that is generated when the water hits the hot stones on the kiuas (stove) and the more löyly there is, the hotter it gets. I found a spot in the middle row and sat on my seat-cover. Except for the crackle of the stove and the hiss of the steam, it was quiet. Occasionally, I heard swishes when some of the men flagellated their backs and shoulders with silver-birch tree branches, which is said to improve blood circulation.
We sat, silent naked men, and let the steam envelop us. Once you get used to the heat, the sauna is remarkably relaxing. Soon, a thick layer of sweat covers your body and, before long, you reach for a scoop and splash some water on the stove to get more steam.
I became a sauna addict early on. The first hurdle was to come to terms with being naked with strangers of all shapes, sizes and age. Once you realize that no one cares about that, it’s easy. Then there’s the heat. Finns are proud of their sauna tradition—the earliest written accounts of Finnish saunas are from the 1100s—and although saunas are popular in other parts of northern Europe, Finns think theirs are the best. A Finnish friend told me a story of how when she was splashing water in a hotel sauna that wasn’t hot enough, a Swedish guest protested about the heat. “Wimp!" she said, chortling.
The early wood saunas used to be in pits in the sides of hills in woods and Lapland still has wood-fired saunas in the middle of forests. Now, most saunas, especially the ones in people’s homes, have electric stoves, which are good, but not quite the same as wood-fired ones. There are new-fangled infrared saunas too but a true Finn would sneer at them.
Sauna etiquette is not complicated. To start with, there’s usually gender segregation unless it’s a private family sauna. Then, there’s the nudity. Squeamish foreigners sometimes wear bathing suits to the sauna but that is considered an oddity. And there’s the matter of löyly. Normally, in a public sauna, those sitting at the topmost benches are the ones in charge of splashing water on the stove. It’s hottest up there so they decide when to make it hotter.
Saunas are ubiquitous in Finnish homes. Last summer, I was invited to one for sauna and dinner—rare in a country where gregariousness isn’t the norm. Hannu, my host and a respected paediatrician, lives in a two-storey wooden cottage in Helsinki’s suburbs and has built a traditional wood-fired sauna with a cylindrical stove in the basement. He graciously set out some cold beers for us and replenished the wood as his son-in-law and I went first for our session. Women guests and children went next. And then Hannu and his wife went for theirs. Post-sauna, we all gathered at the kitchen table for a long and leisurely dinner. It was bliss.
There’s a joke that goes like this: Two Finnish guys go into the sauna, each with a litre of Kossu (Finland’s popular Koskenkorva vodka). Both drink from their bottles deeply and get sloshed. Then one guy goes outside for fresh cold air. The other guy has to guess who went outside.
That’s a taste of Finnish humour for you. It also encapsulates a stereotype about Finland: Finns love their alcohol as much as they do their saunas. After 15 minutes in the Kotiharjun sauna, I get back to the shower to cool down and get a drink of water. In a typical unhurried sauna session, such breaks are advisable: Sit in the sauna for a bit; then cool down before coming back for another session. Some Finns hydrate with a beer or a lonkero, which is a cocktail of gin and grapefruit soda.
The sauna’s therapeutic benefits are said to be many. Researchers at a university in eastern Finland, who tracked a sample of more than 2,000 middle-aged men for over 20 years, found that regular visits to the sauna help stave off memory loss, keep heart disease at bay, and fight skin dryness. In Finland, it has other benefits. Business executives use the sauna more than the golf course for networking and striking deals and it’s common to organize corporate meetings in private saunas.
The weather is, of course, an important factor. In winter, when it’s dark most of the time and temperatures frequently go down to minus 20 degrees Celsius or lower, heat and steam can provide badly needed salvation. A final piece of statistic: The average Finn goes to the sauna at least four times a week. I have an addict’s confession to make: My current average is six.
Bare facts about the Finnish sauna
■Life without saunas is unthinkable in Finland. There are an estimated 2.5-3 million saunas in Finland, which has a population of 5.3 million. These include both personal and public saunas. Most apartment blocks have saunas which are commonly shared but flats also have them attached to bathrooms. Detached houses too have small saunas in the compounds.
■Among the best public saunas in Helsinki are Löyly, a modern, shoreline sauna with a restaurant serving nouvelle Finnish cuisine. Sauna Hermanni, built in 1953, has modern stoves. The Allas Sea Pool has three saunas besides three swimming pools.
■In the US, the Finnish embassy, for instance, runs the Diplomatic Sauna Society for the country’s diplomats to network “naked" with US government officials. Established in 2003, it’s going strong.