A cold sweat
Steaming out your demons can be relaxing, but for Finland's perspirers the sauna is a year-round rite where, as writer Tim Johnson discovers, everyone bares all
Less than five minutes after my arrival on the reindeer farm, I inadvertently ask a personal, extremely inappropriate question.
"How many reindeer do you have?" I inquire, innocently.
Scandalized, the farm's matriarch looks away, cheeks flushed, eyes darting in all directions. "You can ask," she finally responds, slowly, with a bashful smile, "but I won't tell you." She proceeds to explain, patiently, as if to a child, that asking that question up here in Lapland is like asking someone in a city about how much money they have in the bank – it's simply not done.
In a charming Finnish accent, Taina Makela introduces me to her son, Juuso, and husband, Juha, then leaves the three of us to trot off, walking together down a broad hill toward the idyllic Ounasjoki River that moves smooth and slow as molasses, past a thick stand of pine trees on the opposite shore. Making our way toward a small wooden cabin, I can see its chimney issuing puffs of clean white smoke. The landscape looks like something from a Pekka Halonen painting – surreal, bursting with colour, a scene drawn from a fantastic, romantic imagination. And then, moments later, we three are all naked. Like, naked. Naked and sweating and covered in peat tar. Naked, together on a single bench, sitting a couple of inches apart, the black stuff now everywhere.
I am in Finland, where the rites of sauna are nothing short of a national passion. Here, private dwellings – from small apartments to large houses – are built around the sauna, and most workplaces have one, too. Home to about 5 1/2 million people, the country has three million saunas. Sauna is the only Finnish word that has made it into the international lexicon, and many older Finns were actually born in one (back then, the sauna was often the most sterile place for delivering babies). I'm here for a week, to ditch my clothes and find out what all this Finnish fuss is about.
I start my hot, dry adventures in the Finnish capital, Helsinki. A young, ponytailed guide named Anssi Tapola meets me at my hotel and he takes me by a sauna store – a not-unusual place of business here that sells everything from small accessories (like ladles and small buckets) to portable, easily installed sauna units – en route to the oldest wooden sauna in the city.
We hop on a streetcar and ride it to Kallio, a former working-class neighbourhood that's now gone hipster, with brewpubs and artisanal bakeries. It's easy to spot Arla, founded in 1929, well before we get there – rounding a corner, I spot a group of paunchy men, naked to the waist, lining a narrow bench just outside the door, beers in hand, towels affixed, steam rising from their bare backs.
As we pay a small fee and enter a well-worn locker room, Tapola tells me that prior to the Second World War, few families in Finland enjoyed the luxuries of electricity or running water, and they would come to the sauna to clean off and relax. "We always go naked. It's nothing sexual. It's all about community and a sort of equality," he explains. "I can be a millionaire and you a bum, and we're all feeling the same heat and steam." Speaking of bums, we first shower before proceeding, with a small postage-stamp of a mat in hand, to the sauna itself.
As we sit down on a cedar bench, the mat separating my cheeks from the hot wood, Tapola notes that it's all about the loyly – a word pronounced "lool" – that sensation of intense heat washing over you. I take a look around, carefully avoiding certain sightlines, noting that the half-dozen (nude) dudes who have preceded us in here have all chosen the top row – the hottest part of the sauna, and, it turns out, the seat of choice for most Finns. "Do you feel the loyly?" he asks me, and indeed I do, breathing in a fresh wave of heat as a burly Finn pours a fresh ladle of water onto the inflamed rocks. There's just one other tourist, a German, and we're both quickly accepted into the sauna-and-outside-bench conversations (everyone in Finland seems to speak English).
The sauna, I'm told again and again, is not meant to be enjoyed alone. Finnish men are famously stoic, hard-to-read hewers of boreal wood, but wives tell me that they're almost chatty – and unusually agreeable – in the sauna. Young people love it as much as the old, something I see at a Helsinki waterfront spot called, appropriately enough, Loyly. Opened just under two years ago, its two cedar spas are frequently booked out by good-looking young Finns (the place also has five massage suites, plus a private sauna lounge and a cooling room for hanging out in robes and towels). But the most popular location seems to be the patio – which wraps around the main restaurant and runs up a set of stairs to a separate rooftop space. Here, I settle in with a plate of reindeer osso bucco and a local microbrew and take in the views of the Gulf of Finland.
I also learn that sauna is a four-season pursuit, as pleasurable for Finns in the heat of summer as the icy winds of winter, and popular throughout the country – all the way up to the Arctic Circle. To double-check on that, I fly north to Rovaniemi, a small city of some 60,000 that's famous in Finland (and many European countries) as the home of Santa Claus. Before meeting St. Nick (he keeps regular hours, year-round, for photos and gift requests at a rambling tourist complex on the edge of town), I visit a couple of hot spots, first at Arctic Forest Spa, known locally as Metsakyly, an upscale oasis in the middle of the woods. After reclining in one of their Jacuzzis, I take a footbath infused with herbs I had gathered myself from the forest, before taking an arid tour through their three saunas – traditional, smoke and infrared.
And then it's time for Poro-Pekan Pirtti, the reindeer farm. Welcoming visitors to experience a slice of rural Finnish life is fairly common in these parts – bookable on the Web, and providing a nice side income for locals, you can come here to enjoy everything from a meal, to a night in a farmhouse, to a naked sauna with two strangers. Today we're enjoying the latter with a thorough peat treatment, rubbing the odourless, somewhat-gelatinous black earth all over our bodies. A good, solid sweat ensues, the therapeutic peat soaking into our skin as we three, staring straight ahead, make awkward, broken-English conversation. (Example, from Juha, pointing out a small window at the serpentine Ounasjoki: "River. Cold.")
But while this is probably the fastest I've ever gotten naked with two strangers, the discomfort melts away surprisingly quickly as we take the heat together. And it's undeniable: I feel it. The loyly, I feel it strongly. Rolling over me in waves, the cedar and the rocks conspiring to take it all to another level. And maybe it's just the loyly talking, but just for a fleeting second I consider the prospect of becoming a reindeer farmer. And like my new northern friends, I would never reveal my numbers.
The writer was a guest of Visit Finland. It did not review or approve this article.
If you go
Built in 1894, the reindeer farm Poro-Pekan Pirtti provides relaxing experiences, from sauna to ice fishing and snowshoeing: poropekanpirtti.com/introduction
Arctic Forest Spa offers upscale seclusion, and recently opened a number of villas with floor-to-ceiling windows, perfect for viewing the Northern Lights: metsakyly.fi/en/
Santa's Adventures offers trips even further into the boreal forest, where it hosts guests in a lakeside sauna before serving a dinner cooked over a fire: santasadventures.fi
In downtown Rovaniemi, the Arctic Light Hotel offers stylish boutique accommodations with a distinctly Nordic feel – and most rooms include a sauna: arcticlighthotel.fi
In Helsinki, feel the loyly at Loyly – and wander over to its restaurant, which includes multiple, seasonal terraces and serves up tasty Finnish cuisine (and a popular brunch): loylyhelsinki.fi/en/. And take a City Sauna Tour with Happy Guide Helsinki: hassutourshelsinki.com.