How to Helsinki: Sauna, That Scary-Hot Room Full of Naked

Worldcon is in Helsinki this year. As a Finnish-American couple, we are very excited about this! In the coming months, we’d like to offer some practical advice about visiting Finland to our fellow fans who are considering going to the event but haven’t had experience with Finland and Finns before.

Eppu here. Sauna is among the most well-known things about Finland abroad. Incidentally, sauna might also be the most commonly known Finnish word in English (although kalsarikännit seems to be making some inroads lately). Here is a short introduction to sauna I hope will be helpful to newbies.

Flickr johanjeijon Sauna ROI Midnight 2010
Sauna, Rovaniemi, on July 2, 2010, midnight sun; by johanjeijon
  • At its core, sauna bathing is exactly that: a form of cleaning yourself thoroughly. (Think extreme showering, of sorts.) Early saunas were typically small huts with benches along one wall, a wood stove (kiuas) in one corner, and a place for washing with pails of water in another. Modern saunas at pools or public baths (uimahalli) are right next to the showers, and in private homes they are attached to a full bathroom.
  • After an initial, quick shower, bathers sit down on the bench of their choice (high, middle, or low) and wait. If too cool, you can move up a bench and/or toss a ladle of water onto the stove for a burst of steam (löyly). If too hot, you can move to a lower bench, splash yourself with water with the ladle, or step into the shower room for a moment (or drink water, take a shower, go swim). In fact, dividing your sauna bathing into several consecutive short trips to cool off and then returning to the heat makes the experience more enjoyable. A final, good wash head to toe, fresh clothes, and a glass of water afterwards will feel heavenly.
  • Yes, you are indeed supposed to feel hot in sauna. Really hot. The point is to get the sweat flowing—that’s the main thing that’ll make you feel fresh and clean afterwards. However, you shouldn’t feel dizzy or bad; that’s not normal. Don’t be shy about stepping out for a moment before returning. Also note that anything metallic worn on the body (like glasses or jewellery) might get hot and feel uncomfortable.
  • Some people combine alcohol with sauna bathing (typically, a beer or two afterwards instead of water), but I find I get dehydrated enough to want to stick with non-alcoholic drinks. A little something savory can feel good to replenish the salt you’ve just sweated out, though.
  • There is some paraphernalia involved. The two absolutely essential ones are a bucket of water and a ladle, and they are included by default. If desided, you can bring a bottle of water to drink, a sauna whisk (vihta or vasta), a sauna hat, and a bathrobe (to cool off in after the final wash but before changing into fresh clothes). A small cotton or linen towel as a sit-upon (pefletti) can also be a good idea. (Note that some public saunas may require a sit-upon and rent or sell disposable ones to those who don’t bring a personal one.)
Sauna Whisks for Sale
Sauna whisks for sale at a Finnish market square (kauppatori) in 2004
  • There are no time limits or minimum stay to “do sauna right”—you stay as long as you feel like. I know people for whom sauna bathing is an hours-long ritual, whereas I’m a fairly speedy bather myself. (Note, however, that if you’re paying for sauna access, like at hotels and pools, they typically do limit your bathing time.)
  • Sauna bathing can take many forms depending on the composition and mood of the group. It can be silent and meditative, or active and chatty, or anything inbetween. It can be a private affair with each bather in their own thoughts, or part of a stag or hen night. It can be a part of families’ weekend routine, or it can be enjoyed by a solitary business traveler in a hotel in the middle of the week.
  • That said, even the more taciturn Finns can open up in sauna. Because we’re all literally reduced to our bare essentials, sauna is seen as a great equalizer and an easier environment to talk to strange people, especially Intimidating Foreigners (thank you, Arttu, for the wonderfully self-deprecating phrase).
  • And yes, you really are expected to go in completely nude. This is perfectly normal in Finland. In fact, bathing suits that have been used in chlorinated pools may release toxic gases in the heat and are therefore usually prohibited in public saunas.
  • It’s typical for a family to bathe all together, but not necessarily outside the home, nor necessarily after the kids hit puberty. Public saunas may be either segregated or co-ed, or there may be shifts set aside for women and men separately.
  • Note that, as with any place where people appear in a state of undress, there are strict social codes in place. Imagine going to the beach with your family—you wouldn’t want to be stared at, followed, intruded on, touched, or have your physicality commented on. It’s the same while sauna bathing.
  • A note about co-ed saunas specifically: Co-ed bathing tends to skew towards the younger and/or student populations, but it’s not universal. Not all Finns are comfortable with co-ed saunas, and there’s nothing odd about that. It’s perfectly fine to skip a co-ed sauna. Breaches of conduct (lewd comments or gestures), while rare, can happen. Again, think of a beach: it’s not likely that someone misbehaves, but since it is a public setting no-one can guarantee that everyone behaves 100% of the time.
  • You can have a sauna year-round, and we Finns do. (Erik and I can personally testify how lovely it is to have a sauna after hand-shoveling a foot of snow from the driveway!) However, sauna bathing in the nightless night of summer is special, especially at a cottage with added dips into a lake, river, or the sea. Since Finnish natural waters can stay rather cool even in summer, it’s typical to make several visits (sauna, water, sauna, water, etc.) before washing up. And grill some sausages for a salty after-sauna snack.

Finally: It’s not weird to be apprehensive by the thought of a hot room full of naked strangers. However, sauna is a wonderful, relaxing, and cleansing experience, and may just be worth overcoming those doubts. YMMV, naturally. If you’re sauna-curious but extremely shy, a hotel room or an apartment with a private sauna (yes, both are a thing in Finland!) are a possibility.

But don’t take just my word for it. Below are links to non-Finnish sauna bathers’ thoughts. (Note: Some apply specifically to Ropecon, the largest Finnish role-playing con, and therefore to the younger end of the geeky / nerdy circles in Finland.)

Two bonus links: a post from Visit Finland that combines useful info with a delightful lack of marketing-speech: Enjoy Urban Sauna Culture in Helsinki; also, “Sauna Time,” a comic from Scandinavia and the World with a humorous take on the difference between Finnish and Scandinavian sauna bathing.

And a note from Erik: For my fellow non-Finns who haven’t experienced sauna before, you may have your doubts about the whole thing. I certainly did before I tried it. Here’s what I knew about sauna before meeting Eppu and visiting Finland: 1) it’s damp and really, really, really hot; 2) you sweat a lot. Both these things are, of course, true. Now, my previous experiences with damp, hot environments and sweat were not good ones: humid summer days, over-heated pools, gym classes in un-air-conditioned spaces, etc. The thought that someone would voluntarily subject themselves to those kinds of conditions sounded very strange to me.

Here’s what I learned, though: sauna is different. In sauna, the damp heat and sweat feels good. It relaxes your muscles and quiets your mind. It gives you the all-over relaxing warmth of a hot bath, but no part of your body has to stick out in the cold air. You only stay in as long as it feels good: if it starts feeling bad, you just step out and cool down. And as soon as you’re done, you shower away all the sweat. There’s no feeling of clean quite like the clean of being fresh from the sauna.

Of course, your experience may be different. You may try sauna and decide you don’t like it, which is perfectly fine, but don’t be scared to give it a try.

Images: Sauna by johanleijon (CC BY-SA 2.0); Sauna whisks for sale by Eppu Jensen

This post has been edited to add resources.

In Live and Active Cultures we talk about cultures and cultural differences.

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