Sauna is seen as a sacred place in Finland, where babies were once born and ailments treated. Finns still take their sweating needs seriously – there are two million saunas in this country of five million. No wonder Finland is home to the International Sauna Society.
Going to sauna in Finland is such an inherent part of Finnish culture that I wasn’t going to leave Helsinki last week without a trip to one. When in Rome…
I chose Kotiharjun Sauna, a 15-minute tram ride from the center. This only remaining public wood-burning sauna in Helsinki is also the oldest operating in the city, around – and still going strong – since 1928.
After paying admission (10€) and getting a towel (2€) and I was directed upstairs to the ladies’ sauna. I immediately fell in love with the changing room – what a throwback!
Following a quick shower, I went inside the sauna, where a lone naked woman was quietly sitting on the lower benches. We sat there in silence for a while, each sweating in our own daze and thoughts. It felt like meditating alongside a stranger.
When things got too intense, I’d get up to take a cold shower in the adjacent bathroom… and then back in for more sweating. And so it went, for a few cycles, until I got too antsy.
I never exchanged a word with the other sweater. We sat inside in church-like silence. Socializing is normally fine in Finnish saunas but a Finnish friend of a friend whom I met for a drink that same night told me it’s considered almost a sacrilege to, say, read the newspaper or swear. Do so and you may get chided by the sauna’s very own spirit called saunatonttu, or the sauna elf.
At Kotiharjun Sauna, in addition to sweating to your heart’s content you can buy some birch leaves (dried, frozen or fresh) to gently beat yourself, which apparently has a relaxing effect on the muscles. I considered indulging in a little soft masochism but then decided to stick to simple and just sweat. It was my first visit to a Finnish sauna after all. Perhaps next time I’ll graduate to a birch whisk.
Also available at Kotiharjun Sauna are massages (20€ for 30 minutes; by appointment only), scrubs (7€; on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays) and even – yikes! – cupping. If you go – and you should when in Helsinki – bring your own flip flops and sweat away like the Finns do.