No matter in which region of Finland I went to, Sauna was always first on the itinerary.
Imagine being inside a wooden cabin in the middle of the forest and sitting completely naked with your eyes closed and a group of people. Suddenly, someone stands up, takes a ladle of water and throws it over some heated stones on a stove. Just within seconds a heat wave gets to your body and makes your feel that the whole room is on fire. This is not some kind of medieval torture or something out of a horror movie; this is a Finnish sauna and believe or not, it is one of the most relaxing and purifying experiences you can do in Finland.
Finnish sauna is not exactly as many people imagine a sauna to be. There are no LED lightings at the celling, aromatic fragrances from exotic countries or smooth jazz background music. It is a simple dark cabin where you are basically full in contact with just yourself.
People don´t talk, eat, drink and never less flirt in this sacred room. Here, Finns come at least once a week to clear their mind, loose up after a difficult day and even think about before making a big decision in their life.
A Finnish Sauna is a whole ritual itself
Finns love sauna and if you are a guest in their country, you will be asked to be part of this experience at least once. Finding a sauna in Finland should also not be an issue as Finland has 3.3 million saunas all over the country and I could almost certainly say that every second person in the country has a sauna in their home. It is common to hear that business partners are in the sauna discussing matters and until now I haven´t seen a hotel in Finland, that doesn´t have one for their guests.
Of course, not everyone has enough space for a wooden cabin at their property or a smoke sauna in their basement. Still, when visiting a Finnish home, you can always see a small room dedicated for it.
For me, I went on a full sauna experience during my road trip in Saimaa. I had not only the opportunity of experiencing all three types of Finnish sauna (smoke, wood stove and electric), but also having it right next to the magnificent and peaceful lake Saimaa.
Here, sauna becomes an obligatory activity and a full cultural experience itself. First, I had to go into the deep forest and collect some fresh birch twigs – these were later tied up in order to form a “vasta” or “vihta”: an item Finns use to softly whip themselves while being inside the sauna.
After I entered the sauna, I could spent anything between 15 and 30 minutes under temperatures ranging between 50 to 70°C. However, locals told me that each sauna is completely different and I should stay as long as I pleased. The sauna is a moment for just myself.
The intense heat made my body sweat within seconds and in order to refresh it, my only option was whipping myself with the vasta from time to time. Using a vasta didn’t hurt at all, but on the contrary: the aromas expelled by the birch and the warm leaves touching my skin simply refreshed my body and made the whole room smell like the forest outside the cabin.
Finally, once I had enough for the day, I could simply get out naked to the forest and take a dip at the refreshing waters of lake Saimaa.
It was 11pm during a Summer night and the sun was still at the horizon, the temperature of the water was crisp and with the sounds of nature around me, I could fully understand why Finnish sauna is such a special activity in this country.
Finnish sauna is related to peace and well-being
I was not the only one having sauna that Summer evening, as our whole team did this activity together and after having a short swim at the lake, we had some cold beers waiting for us – this is all part of Finnish culture. Although some of us felt at the beginning a little bit uncomfortable of being naked in the sauna, for Finns it is simply an activity for well-being and any shyness should rather stay outside. Here, nobody is judging anybody and although you are sharing a short moment of intimacy with the people around, Finnish sauna is one of the most personal and individual activities you can do.
Saunas are a place where people go without looking for any kind of seduction, nor looking for sex. Still, men go to the sauna with men and women with women. At the same time, families usually visit the sauna together and if you are visiting a public mixed sauna, you will find more common to see some people wearing swimming suits inside the facilities.
Moreover, for many Finns sauna is a religious experience that doesn’t involve any deities or organized religion. Finns come here to rest and clear their souls. Kids are taught by their parents to behave with respect in the sauna as much as they would do it inside a church and some Finns even describe the sauna as “a moment in which time stops and they are experiencing being born and dying at the same time”.
Sauna is probably the most important word in the Finnish language, and I can´t imagine meeting a Finn, who says sauna didn’t play an important part in his life.
As a visitor in Finland, I might not see sauna as the life changing experience Finns talk about, but being in the middle of the nature where nobody cared how I looked like, what I’m thinking about or what I do, was something different. At the same time hearing nothing more than the silence of the nature while smelling the forest surrounding Lake Saimaa was probably the closest time went to heaven on earth.