In a land rich in sauna history and tradition, public saunas used to be a staple in every neighbourhood of Helsinki. Now only a handful still exist.

ONE could say that sauna is to Finns as air is to the rest of us: indispensable. In fact, in a country of 5.5 million people, there is said to be nearly three million saunas on hand. Sauna is also the most recognised Finnish word to have been incorporated into the English language, originally used to describe the structure in which a sauna is held. It’s importance cannot be understated. As a cornerstone of Finnish life, sauna has provided warmth in a cold land and been a cultural domain for millennia.

More recently, in the past 100 years or so, locations in metropolitan Helsinki where anyone can come take a sauna and use a bathhouse have been commonplace. During the first half of the 1900s these public saunas dotted the city streets. There was one on just about every block, totalling over 200 at one point. People would come regularly to these locales that served not only as a place to get warm and cleanse, but also as community gathering spots.

Then, upon the arrival of piping systems that brought hot water into peoples’ homes, residents began to remain there for bathing, and visits to the public sauna became less frequent. Now they’ve been replaced even more so by private saunas at home and those in the numerous public swimming pools. Today the number of public saunas that remain open year-round in Helsinki can be counted on one hand.

The public steam of life. Images from Alexander Lembke’s series “The New World of Sauna”.

Inside public sauna

Water sizzles as it’s thrown onto a pile of scalding rocks and a hot vapour engulfs the room. “I like the way the steam bites you when it hits,” grimaces Timo Yliluoma, a regular at Kotiharjun Sauna in Kallio.

Ylihuoma prefers to sit up on the piippu hylly, what translates to the “pipe shelf”. This is the highest seat in the sauna, the hottest seat in the house. “Its an overwhelming feeling, like finally getting that itch that you haven’t been able to reach.”

Open since 1928, Kotiharjun Sauna is the only strictly log burning sauna left in Helsinki. Nearly two cubic metres of wood are thrown daily into two huge stoves, one in the men’s sauna and one in the women’s. These each hold 1,500 kg of glowing hot stones. As one could imagine, this sends out some serious steam.

This hot steam is what Finns call löyly. Originally meaning spirit or life, it’s the essence of sauna. And when it hits the skin, pores open up and sweating ensues pushing dirt and toxins out of the body. Then, following up with a cool shower or jump in a cold lake washes it all away.

The experience not only cleans you on the outside, but inside as well. “You clear your head and go to a different world,” states Otso Koski, another Kotiharju patron who enjoys a sauna two to three times a week. “It’s complete radio silence for a few hours. All systems down to reboot for the next week.”

On special occasions a vihta is passed around the sauna. This is a leafy bundle of birch twigs tightly wrapped together that is firmly swatted across the back during the climax of the sauna. This ritual relieves itching and further stimulates the opening of the pores, while at the same time emitting a sweet aroma into the room. Something special Kotiharjun Sauna offers is their ready stock of vihta available for purchase.

Many prefer the public sauna atmosphere over a private sauna club. “In a public sauna, it doesn’t matter who you are or what is your position in society,” reflects Tuesday night regular Arto Lode. “There are no rules on how you are supposed to be.”

So if there are no rules, then who says you can’t have a public sauna disco party? This is exactly what goes down twice a year at Sauna Hermanni in Vallila. With a DJ, disco ball, lights, and dancing, participants really get loose during this sauna event.

Sauna Hermanni goes above and beyond what a normal public sauna might do by holding its own special events such as this. Another classic day at this sauna is the vihta marathon, where 14 different kinds of leaf bundles are available for people to try and compare. And on Helsinki’s Restaurant Day, the sauna brings a spread of traditional Finnish food along with live music.

Founded in 1953, just as the electric sauna was the new hype, Sauna Hermanni has always had two large electric stoves, each keeping hot 300 kg of rocks. With separate saunas for men and women, this is the only public sauna to offer a mixed sauna on Thursdays.

“If you have a bad day, you come to sauna and it’s not a bad day anymore,” states Miko Ahonen of Sauna Hermanni. “There are no angry people here. Red faces come out, but they are happy red faces.”

Sauna religion

Sauna has always been a place of peace. In medieval Europe, the sauna bathhouse was almost as sacred as church. During a time of nearly constant war, these were places of neutrality where weapons were left at the front. A crime committed in sauna was as punishable as if committed in church.

Today poor behaviour in the sauna remains taboo. Folklore has it that a little gnome called saunatonttu, or “sauna elf”, has its home in the sauna and is watching. He is always to be treated with respect, as he may bring trouble to those behaving immorally in the sauna. If treated well, he will watch out for the people and warn them if a fire threatens the sauna.

It is even customary to occasionally warm up the sauna just for the sauna elf and at times to leave a bite to eat for him.

For many, sauna is very much a holy experience. “Sauna is a religion where you praise yourself and the others with you,” says avid sauna goer Simo Puintila. “Here you are just how you are – naked and sweating, and more willing to open up yourself.”

So for the Finns, who don’t easily share their emotions, here is one place where they really open up and tell their stories. As a local sauna proverb goes, “Without clothes we become anonymous. No need to pretend, with no place to hide.”

Sauna evolution

The practice of sauna has flourished throughout history in Finland particularly, more so than in other countries. For one, the extreme cold makes this the only way to really warm your bones during much of the year. And being that Finland has been more rural and heavily forested than most other densely populated European countries, there has always been an endless supply of firewood allowing sauna to be a regular part of everyday life.

The sauna is also historically a very versatile structure, being the first thing built when people would move. They could live and make food in it, take care of personal hygiene, and perhaps most importantly, give birth in a sterile environment.

Originally a sauna, or what is often referred to as a “sweat lodge”, was dug out of the land as a pit and covered into a dome shape with wood, earth, or animal skins to retain the heat inside. Rocks were heated by fire to a very high temperature and water poured over them to create steam and the sensation of increasing heat, just like today. It was mainly a warming and cleansing activity, surrounded by various traditional rituals, prayer and song.

The first actual “Finnish” saunas, are nowadays called savusauna, or “smoke sauna”. Instead of heating rocks in a stove with a chimney, these saunas are heated by burning large amounts of wood for up to eight hours and letting them fill up with smoke and heat. The smoke is then ventilated out and the warmth in the air and from the rocks stays for an extended period of time. A properly heated smoke sauna gives good heat for up to 12 hours.

When the industrial revolution brought metal, the sauna evolved to being built in a log cabin containing a metal wood stove with a chimney that was used to heat the rocks. After this came the electric stove which heats the rocks without fire. And nowadays there is even infrared sauna, where infrared light is experienced as radiant heat absorbed by the skin.

Amidst this growth of sauna variety, however, for those who like the social aspect of public saunas, the options are diminishing.

Andy Kruse