When you’re in Finland, it’s only a matter of time before someone will invite you to the sauna. Ulf is so into sauna that he has two of them. This genuine sauna aficionado shares some insights into sauna culture.
Location: Maalahti, Finland. 55Km East of Isokyrö.
When you’re in Finland, it’s only a matter of time before someone will invite you to the sauna. I wanted to get to the bottom of this quintessentially Finnish practice, and so I stood in the late afternoon sun at a petrol bowser in Maalahti, waiting for my contact to arrive. I had been looking for someone who could give me some deeper insights into sauna culture. A friend suggested Ulf, a genuine sauna aficionado.
Soon he rolled up. “We take my vehicle. The road isn’t good. They have been getting timber,” he said, and he charged his decrepit SUV down a narrow dirt road into the forest (in Finland, the forest is never far away). The road twisted its way along what were not much more than logging tracks, until suddenly we were in a clearing on the edge of the sea. At the water’s edge a jetty extended onto the mirror-smooth surface. It was a perfect autumn afternoon at the start of bird-hunting season, but today the guns were silent. Not a breath of wind ruffled the leaves of the birch trees.
The sauna was a small cabin made of interlocking timbers, typical of the log-cabin style kit saunas of the 1970s and 80s. The late afternoon sun warmed the verandah, which looked down onto the jetty.
Ulf set the fire inside the sauna stove, which would heat the rocks on top. The best wood, he explains to me, is alder or birch. Well-dried.
“A good sauna has to be small,” he said, “otherwise it takes too long to get hot. And it has to have good ventilation.”
Enough fresh air has to come into the sauna, to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide build-up. Every year some 30 to 40 Finns die in the sauna, some of them due to CO poisoning or asphyxiation.
These days, electric saunas are more common than wood; and yes, they are safer, but Ulf doesn’t care for them. He says they make the air too dry.
To combat any dryness, Ulf opens a couple of cold beers from a local craft brewery.
After 30 minutes, the sauna is ready. The usual question at this point is: “Finnish or international?” meaning naked, or with swimming trunks. Of course we go Finnish. In Finland there’s nothing weird about being naked with strangers for a sauna. Ulf tells a story about a work colleague who visited from Belgium, who insisted on wearing swimmers into the sauna.
“It was a very uncomfortable situation!” he says.
We close the door and step up onto the top bench. This is where the heat is most intense. Ulf tosses water onto the stones and the steam rises. The skin starts to prickle, and then the sweat comes. It’s hot, but very pleasant.
“A sauna should be around 80 or 90 degrees,” Ulf says. “More than 100 is too hard for me.” But at the same time, “if it’s under 65 degrees, it’s better not to bother.”
“Most people when they have done a hard week’s work, they want to relax, so they go to the sauna. It makes the muscles get soft, the mental activity goes down. And it’s very relaxing here in nature.”
For some sauna-goers, that relaxation extends to beating themselves with birch branches. It’s said to stimulate the blood vessels and pores in the skin. Some believe that this also releases illness and ill-nature from the body.
Sauna has indeed been shown to reduce stress hormones, lower blood pressure and improve blood circulation.
Ulf says that people used to believe the sauna could take sickness out of the body. And not just physical ailments.
“If someone was crazy in the head, they used to think the sauna would take this away,” he says.
“Nowadays people also take a lot to drink to sauna, because it relaxes.” In some cases, perhaps too much. Something like 70 percent of sauna-related deaths involve alcohol, often at high concentrations.
Almost every home in Finland has a built-in electric sauna. Typically, Finnish families sauna together one or more times a week, and before private homes had running water (even into the 1950s or 60s), the sauna was the only way to get clean. The sauna is deeply built into the Finnish psyche.
“In Finland we have so many saunas that the whole population could go at once,” Ulf boasts.
Ulf is so into sauna that he has two, one at the cottage and one at his home – both wood-fired, of course.
Cooling down is an essential part of the sauna ritual – just as important as the heating. We head down the jetty and into the sea, which is a very refreshing 15 or 16°C. Aaah, beautiful.
Then Ulf brings out a packet of sausages. “Saunamakkara!” he says happily, placing the thick sausages on the sauna stones.
“My father used to grill Sininen Lenkki (a monster sausage weighing well over 500 grams) on the stones while we were in the sauna,” Ulf says, “so we all came out smelling like sausages.”
Today we let the sausages grill on their own, while we enjoy a few more beers in the last rays of the sun through the birch trees. A flock of geese take off from the sea, form up in a V, and fly off to the outer islands of the archipelago. Near the end of the jetty a fish jumps out of the water.
Yep, this is relaxing.
• Sauna is originally an ancient Finnish word, but the practice was common across central and northern Europe in the Middle Ages.
• In the 14th century, “sauna” culture died out in most of Europe because of fear it was causing mass syphilis outbreaks.
• A Finnish sauna is usually between 75°C and 100°C, though some people will go as high as 110°C.
• Sauna has indeed been shown to reduce stress hormones, lower blood pressure and improve blood circulation.
• The moisture on your skin in a sauna is actually more steam condensing, than sweat. Ask a friendly physicist to explain why.
• The Finnish Sauna Society believes the country has are more than 3 million saunas, to a population of 5.5 million.
• 30 to 40 Finns die each year in the sauna, often with high blood-alcohol concentrations. Stay safe, drink responsibly.
• Sauna culture spread to northern Europe after the second world war, as German soldiers returning from the Finnish front took sauna culture home with them.
• The first electric sauna stoves were made in 1938, by a company in Vaasa, 50km ENE of Isokyrö.
• The first saunas were so-called “savusauna”, or “smoke sauna.” This kind of sauna is rare these days – enjoy if you happen to find one.