The Finns are a canny race. They boast the world's best school system, an innovative design-led economy and a highly literate culture despite the linguistic oddity that is Finnish. So it's worth reflecting on their national obsession with sauna, pronounced sour-nah.
On a midwinter day in Helsinki I catch up with Jaakko Blomberg, organiser of Helsinki Sauna Day, to see what is driving the recent revival of Finnish sauna culture. There are 5.5 million Finns spread across this vast lake-speckled landmass and an estimated 3 million saunas: around one for every family. I am curious to know if sauna brought any tangible benefits to the harsh Nordic lifestyle, or was the hoo-ha about sauna just a lot of seriously hot air?
I'd been warned in advance about Finnish Nordic froideur. A Swedish acquaintance told me to expect from the Finns a wary reserve before the first few drinks, fraternal affection thereafter. If language is a window to a culture's soul then the Finnish word kalsarikannit – to get drunk at home by yourself in your underpants – says a lot about the national psyche. The k-word is considered such an apt national emblem it has its own emoji.
The scene that greets me at Uusi Sauna, in the residential district and former cargo port of Jatkasaari, is completely unexpected. Snow drifts gently across the floor to ceiling windows and inside men and women gather – most of them in towels and bathrobes – for drinks, snacks and meals. This tableaux – a cross between collective bathroom and bar – is in plain view from the street.
I step inside and find Jaakko – statuesque with fine blond hair swept back into a ponytail – who leads me to the male sauna where men are chatting and laughing. Out of modesty I wear swimming trunks but everyone else is as naked as the day they were born. The higher one ventures up the tiered seating the hotter it gets. I'm encouraged to join the men roosting on the higher levels and teased when I decline. "It's no warmer up here than one of your Sydney summer days." says a lobster red stranger, more to the group than to me. Blomberg raises an eyebrow. "Don't believe him," he says. "It's around 80 degrees Celsius up there."
The newly built Uusi sauna stands in a dockland burb common to many post-industrial cities, but sauna Arla, to which Jaakko introduces me the next day, is in a grittier neighbourhood on the other side of town. It has been around for 90 years – its art deco entrance gates testament to its age – and has the same congenial vibe as Uusi, despite the socio-economic shift. A man with a sagacious beard declaims, after some prompting, that sauna is his religion. "I'm not a church-going man," he says in halting English. "But for an hour after every sauna it's all peace and love." In the changing room, a near-naked man unwraps a white paper package to reveal a dozen smoked powan – a flavoursome oily fish of the salmon family mostly found in Baltic waters. He adds a wedge of Swiss cheese, splays his hands with a sharing gesture and, voila, there's a communal picnic.
I take a fish in one hand while Jaakko offers me a beer for the other. The men in the changing rooms break into earnest conversation in Finnish. As we head outside into the sub zero air for the cooling down phase – towels around our waists – Jaakko explains that the blokes inside were comparing fish recipes. I can well understand why the bearded man declared the public sauna his church: it offers a sense of community, a form of relaxation, and even – after repeated cycles of withering heat and bracing cold – a state of mind bordering on the ecstatic.
"They're ordinary guys," says Jaakko. "In the sauna you are what you are. The important thing about a communal sauna is that it's not for show. It's authentic."
The selves we project through social media are mostly of our own creation. My Facebook self is the persona I curate; my Insta shots are of the perfect holiday; my LinkedIn profile is a kickass version of me. But in a Finnish public sauna there is nudity and there is nakedness, and the two are not the same. The latter has a more psychological register associated with stripping back and laying bare, with honesty – humanity. In the public sauna you are not a creature of your own creation; you are as you were created.
On another bright day in Helsinki I take a walk with Matti Vaisanen, who runs design tours of the city, to sauna Loyly. It's a stunning work of contemporary architecture clad in snow-covered pine stacks, as angular as crumpled origami, with mixed gender saunas and a restaurant with views across the harbour.
At Uusi and Arla men and women enjoy separate saunas and mixed cooling down areas. Loyly, the Finnish word for the steam that fizzes off hot rocks when water is poured on them, is different. The sauna areas are mixed gender and patrons are "respectfully" asked on the website to bring their bathers. As it's on the oceanfront, Loyly also offers the challenge of a Nordic plunge: an 80-degree sauna followed by a dip in the three-degree drink. I take a few steps outside and stop – my bare feet in the snow and ice and my torso braced against the gentle yet gelid breeze. I offer the excuse of advanced age to Matti. "If you were going in I would too," he says, with a look of relief. "But as you're not, I won't." We scamper back indoors.
At the brasserie we eat traditional Finnish salmon soup, reindeer meatballs and drink local beer. "We have a word for the beer you have after a sauna," says Matti.
"Of course you do," I say.
We stroll through the art nouveau residential district of Eira, named after the Eira hospital, which is in turn named after Eir the Nordic goddess of healing. The apartments are like tiny castles all in a queue and the roofline is a procession of snow-clad turrets, domes and mansards. The 5pm night sky is clear and many of the good folk of Eira walk their pooches with scant concession to the cold. Overnight the temperature falls to 20-below and when I step outside a little after dawn the mercury has barely risen. Jaakko has agreed to meet for a farewell sauna and swim at Allas Sea Pool on the harbour front in town.
There are three pools at the Allas complex, which opened to the public in 2016 and serves as a sauna, pool and civic hub referencing the old Baltic spa culture. One pool is completely frozen over, another stands at sea temperature and has an oily sheen that if left undisturbed will soon turn to ice, while another, bordered by snow with steam rising from the surface, is heated to about 25 degrees. This is the pool for me.
We dash across the snow, feet burning from the cold, and plunge in. I do laps to warm up and pause to catch my breath with a perfectly blue sky above, pure fresh snow all around, and a tangerine sun on the horizon. I climb out and grab my towel, which I'd thrown over wet shoulders when I left the sauna. It has turned to ice. Giddy with the extremes I dash back across the snow laughing, a la Jingle Bells, all the way.
Do the Finns have a word for careening around wet and semi-naked in 18 degrees below before breakfast, I ask Jaakko over a restoring cup of coffee at the Allas sea pool cafe. He shakes his head. "Not unless it involves beer," he says.
But I think there's one in English – "fun".
Finnair flies from most Australian capital cities to Helsinki with partners Qantas and Cathay Pacific. see finnair.com
Hotel Lilla Roberts, in the design quarter, boasts art deco and contemporary art touches, a cosy lobby bar with fireplace and an excellent restaurant.. Rooms from $220.See lillaroberts.com
Helsinki Sauna Day is held on March 9 each year. See helsinkisaunaday.fi
Happy Guide Helsinki offers walking, design and sauna tours. See happyguidehelsinki.com
Luke Slattery travelled with assistance from Collette and Helsinki Marketing.