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Kotiharjun sauna is a public sauna in Helsinki’s Kallio district. Picture: Timo Piilovaara

We were somewhere in Espoo, on a deserted island called Gåsgrund, when the heat began to take hold.

I sat in sauna with a true sauna freak, Samu, who I got to know as a sauna fanatic, and when I say fanatic I don’t refer to the average Finn who takes a sauna two times per week all year around. No, Samu takes the Finns’ proud tradition of taking hot steam baths in small, confined rooms to a whole new level.

For many of us who live in Finland, enjoying dry and wet heat sessions in saunas, usually together with family members or friends, is an inherent part of our everyday life. We soak in the steam vapour and heat that is created by splashing water, sometimes even other liquids, on the heated stones.

There are steam saunas, smoke saunas, electric stove saunas, wood stove saunas, collective saunas and portable saunas — these terms, and what they entail in practice, are all too familiar when you have lived in Finland long enough.

One of Samu’s most memorable visits to the sauna last year was in one with wheels. Ideally located in the centre of Helsinki, and from which one can overlook the Baltic Sea, used to be a small bus designed for carrying children to and from school.

However, the owners decided to renovate the entire interior of the school bus into their liking. It now features a small wood stove and wooden benches to sit on. According to Samu, the steam is very intense in the small space, and the hissing noise one can hear after someone pours water over the hot stones is louder than usual.

One of Samu’s most memorable visits to the sauna last year was in one with wheels.

 

Picture: Jonas Tana

Picture: Jonas Tana

In Finland, saunas are a place for relaxation, social gatherings and diplomatic meetings. Getting naked and sweating together while talking politics? Not so far-fetched as one may think.

Former president and Finnish Nobel Peace Prize laureate of 2008, Martti Ahtisaari, and Urho Kekkonen, who governed for almost 26 years as the president of Finland during the Cold War, held diplomatic negotiations with foreign diplomats in the sauna, where all men were regarded equal and arguing was not allowed. The method was called “diplomacy without a tie.”

The so-called Sompasauna, located on the island Sompasaari in Helsinki, is another extraordinary place Samu visits to get naked and be covered from head to toe in sweat. The beautiful scenery is not the only factor that makes this place special. The public sauna, which reminds of a small summer cottage, was built from donated materials by a group of volunteers and features a small wood stove. Sompasauna is free for everyone to use during the summertime, Samu tipped.

Samu has visited numerous saunas all over Finland, but I get the impression that, in the end, each of his visits to the sauna comes down to a few key moments: the marvellously tingling sensation on the skin, the scent that is created by fresh birch branches, which are also used for beating your naked body to facilitate blood circulation, and good company and the fact that various topics, including more private, sensitive matters, can be discussed without inhibitions. A few sips of a cold beer or cider outside the sauna complete the experience.

When I sat on the creaky old bench in the chilly breeze catching a breath between the sessions of intense heat on that late summer night, I listened to the sound of water washing the shore, and smelled the burning wood. Wrapped in a towel and the grass tickled my bare feet. Steam evaporating from my body. Mosquitoes buzzing around my head. I felt calm. There was nothing else I needed or wanted, nowhere else I needed or wanted to go. I got up and followed the burning candles that led the way to a small, windowless, wooden shack behind me. I dropped the towel and went back inside.

Samu shared a few sure-fire tips for heating the sauna with success. Use dry birch wood, bring good company and have enough cold beer of your favourite brand available! Drink water, too! And in case your interest in taking a hot steam bath is piqued, you may want to check out the Helsinki Sauna Day that is held on March 12 2016.

This event enables you to visit private saunas that are normally hidden from the public and to enjoy their distinctive character. All you need to do is to book a session for you and your friends in one of the places, grab a towel and sweat and have fun networking naked.

Who knows, maybe you come across Samu.

 

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