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Around the World: When in Finland, SAUNA!

Jennifer Merin on


When it comes to unwinding after a long journey or an arduous day’s work, most people worldwide take a moment to pour themselves a drink to take the edge off the day’s stresses and relax.

In Finland, people are more likely to head for the sauna. Whether they go solo or with friends or coworkers, Finns rely on sauna to ease their stress, relax and reenergize. And have they ever got the right idea. It works!’’

Historically, it’s a bit unclear whether sauna originated in Finland or not, but it’s been part of Finnish culture since before anyone can remember. And it’s always been particularly popular during Finland’s harsh winters, when the sauna’s extreme heat is the perfect antidote to the brutally cold outdoors climate.

Since ancient times, Finns have used saunas to bathe and relax after hard work and to prepare for weddings, religious holidays and other celebrations of all sorts. Archeologists have found primitive saunas -- built in covered dug-outs -- in the oldest Finnish settlements discovered to date.

Even the “Kalevala,” the 23,000-verse epic that stands as the official record of Finland’s folklore, mythology and traditional lifestyle, has rich references to sauna. “Come now, God, into the sauna, to the warmth, heavenly Father, healthfulness to bring us, and the peace secure to us,” reads one passage.

Needless to say, when visiting Finland, experiencing a sauna is a must – for both physical and cultural reasons.

Statistics show that Finland has about 5-million saunas for its 1.5-million people. And, that means that Finland actually has more saunas than automobiles.

In fact, in Finland, it’s requisite for all hotels to have saunas. They’re also commonplace in office buildings, factories and other work places. And, most private homes have saunas, too. You’ll have no difficulty finding a nearby sauna that will welcome you.

If you’ve never experienced sauna before – which is unlikely because the sauna tradition has spread far and wide around the globe – you’re in for a treat. The ‘treatment’ consists of exposing your body to extremes of hot and cold alternatively.

Sauna is a ritual that most Finns repeat to some extent at lease every other day to maintain good health and peace of mind.

The alternating between exposure to hot and cold is meant to relax muscles, stimulate circulation and provide mental and physical health. According to many Finns, sauna is a spiritual experience. And,once you’ve experienced their version of extreme steam, it’s difficult to disagree with their assessment.

The sauna itself is a completely enclosed area, usually with lined wooden walls and benches, and heated to barely tolerable high temperatures. The lighting is dim and has a reddish glow. The pleasant fragrance of birch permeates the air, but it’s actually so hot you can barely inhale its soothing scent. The cocoon-like environment is not altogether different from that of sauna’s elsewhere in the world, but there is something special about taking the steam at the source.

As sweat runs in rivulets down your limbs, making your skin glisten in the dim light, it’s impossible not to relax, and lose oneself in thought. The only thing that’s happening is the heat and the sweat, and the occasional hiss of cool water being poured over red-hot stones or the rhythmic sounds of birch whisks being slapped on naked backs and limbs. The former ups the temperature and adds steam to the sauna. The latter is a ritual meant to enhance the sauna’s beautifying effects on the skin.

Now and again, when your body is super-heated, you push through the sauna’s heavy door and sprint to a shower or pool of cool water or – if you’re really in the tradition – an icy lake, and jump in. The sudden cold is a shock to your system, and the effect is reenergizing and, some say, rejuvenating.

Once you’ve dabbled in Finnish sauna at your hotel, you’re likely to want to experience the saunas frequented by locals more. Every sauna has the same basic routine, but the ambience does vary considerably – often depending considerably upon the people with whom you’re sharing the steam and the specific style of sauna that’s offered.

The best place to experience the full variety of sauna styles is undoubtedly at the historic Finnish Sauna Society, which just might be considered the world headquarters for sauna.

Founded in 1937with the specific intention of fostering f the heritage of Finland’s culture and its national bath, the Finnish Sauna Society is housed in a charming white wooden frame building in a Helsinki suburb, on the scenic shore of the Baltic Sea.

There are five wood-heated saunas and one modern electric sauna on the premises. Three of the wood-heated saunas are smoke saunas -- or “savosaunas” -- the most traditional type, in which smoke from the wood fire is allowed to accumulate inside the room, creating a distinctive sauna smell, and depositing an uneven patina on the walls.

For Sauna Society visitors, the traditional cooling down is a quick sprint to a wooden dock and plunge into the Baltic Sea.

For those who don’t enjoy that very energetic and invigorating dash-and-dunk routine, the bathroom itself has showers for intermittent cooling off -- it’s a necessary part of the routine -- between sweats.

In addition to the all-important saunas, the Sauna Society’s building features a thoroughly charming sitting room that has large picture windows that overlook snow-clad fields during winter and the well-groomed grounds and gardens during summer months -- and the sea beyond them.

With its welcoming collection of comfortable wicker armchairs and pine loungers, the sitting room is an ideal place -- everyone who frequents the Sauna Society has a favorite spot -- to curl up for a read or a daydream after a round of sauna and swim.

If you’re in the mood for some additional pampering, an attendant awaits to give you a stimulating scrub you from head to toe with a loofa or to provide you with a tenderizing a mini-massage.

In keeping with Finnish sauna tradition, men and women are scheduled to use the facilities on alternative days. If modesty is an issue for you, you may cloak yourself entirely in towels, which are supplied free of charge by the sauna attendants, for the entire experience -- except, of course, for the sea splash.

The Finnish Sauna Society is actually a private club with about 4500 current members. Unfortunately for tourists, there are periods during which the society’s saunas are accessible only to members and their guests. If you know someone is who a member, or if you are in Helsinki to do business with a local corporation that might have a company membership, ask to be invited for a day’s access.

Members pay a day fee for themselves and guests, That covers unlimited use of the various saunas and showers, sitting room and cafeteria.

Or, better yet, you can apply to become a member yourself. The joining fee is 350 Euros and there is an annual membership fee of 100 Euros Consider the joining fee and annual dues as the cost of a day trip, which can be equally expensive. Consider, too, that your membership remains valid even if you take a year’s hiatus from dues. And, with a membership, you can invite your friends to sauna with you as your guest.

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For more information about the Finnish Sauna Society visit its Website at www.sauna.fi or visit the Website of Finnish Tourist Board at www.visitfinland.com, where you will find lists of other saunas in Helsinki and throughout Finland.

 

Copyright 2019 Jennifer Merin
 

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