Finland is famous for saunas. I didn’t know this until I traveled to Finland, but apparently saunas are very important in Finnish traditional culture. Perhaps it is similar to Japan’s relationship with onsen?
During my time in Finland, I sometimes used Uber (a ‘taxi’ type service). The driver told me that 1 of every 3 households in Finland have their own private sauna. Because of this, public saunas are less popular and going out of business.
Luckily, I was able to go to a public sauna in Helsinki. The sauna was called Kotiharjun Sauna and is located a couple stops from Helsinki central station if you take the subway. It was very fun and interesting.
The building felt very old. The sauna felt very old. Walking into the building, It felt like I traveled back in time to the 1950’s. You enter the building into a small room with a front desk. A door on the right leads to the men’s changing room and sauna. Women climb the steep and narrow stairs on the left to go to the women’s changing room and sauna upstairs.
I entered the changing room. The room was dimly lit and the colors of the room were dark grays and browns. The lockers, tables and benches were made of dark stained wood. Real wood, not the cheap particleboard used in most new buildings. There were cans of beer and Finnish ‘long drinks’ everywhere. Everyone was walking around naked and barefoot. I’m used to being naked after going to Japanese onsens many times, however it was very different when all the other men are tall, large, and hairy!
There was a shower, but not very comfortable. The walls were covered with stainless steel, the floor was brown tile, and the atmosphere of the room felt cold and uninviting. The room was almost empty and had only a few showerheads high on the wall. Usually, when I visit Japanese onsen, the showers are very nice. They have a very warm atmosphere and provide chairs, buckets, soap and shampoo. But this Finnish shower room was very different.
I don’t know the customs for a Finnish sauna, so I looked around awkwardly trying to figure out what to do. Do I take a shower? There is no soap in here… should I get some soap from my bag? Or should I just enter the sauna? Do I bring my towel or not? Unfortunately, there was nobody I could follow. I decided to just wash off and leave my towel on the big towel rack and enter the sauna!
The sauna was warm (of course!), but it was not hot. I expected hot. Then, I climbed to the top row of seats where all the other guys were sitting. It was much hotter up there… Very hot! I’m not really good at saunas (I never even use the sauna at Japanese hot springs). I would have preferred the lower seat, but all of the Finnish guys were on the top row. I climbed up and sat on the top row. I sat in the sauna for a long time (it felt like a long time, but actually it was probably only 5 minutes or so). It was getting really hot. I was sweating everywhere. It was difficult to breath because the air was so hot. I felt like my throat was burning with every breath I took. But, there were still many guys who came in before me. Surely, I should stay longer than them! I waited a few more minutes before giving up and escaping the sauna.
The most interesting part of the sauna came next. After getting hot in the sauna, everyone went outside to cool off in front of the building. Wearing nothing but towels, both guys and girls sat and talked in a big group on the front lawn. Nobody seemed embarrassed at all. Some guys even sat too relaxed, showing more than I wanted to see. The sauna is still in the middle of the city and there were many people walking by. Nobody seemed to notice or care that there was a large group of almost naked people sitting nearby.
After I rested outside, I went back inside and used the sauna one more time. Many people can stay in the sauna all day, but I was done. I finished up, changed and rode the subway back home feeling warm and relaxed. I feel very lucky I could experience the true Finnish public sauna before they all disappear. If you ever visit Finland I recommend the sauna!