Last Friday, a group of girls and I decided to skip the post-work drinks with the boys and head over to a public sauna. We went as a small group, because we the website specifically requested no groups larger than 3, and not to try to enter separately.
We chose the Kulturisauna because it is right on the water in one of the inlet bays from the Baltic. It is not a fully traditional smoke sauna- which burn lots of wood to stay hot- but is fueled by smoldering wood chips, which still gives it that amazing smell with out the smoke. It is, fortunately, just a 5 minute walk from my apartment, right next to Jimmy’s work.
We had also heard that this was one of the nicer saunas to visit. However, from the looks of it on the outside and its rather obscure location, I was figuring it would be very much like a public swimming pool in the States.
From the moment we walked in, I could see that I was very wrong.
You are greeted by a sea of shoes, obviously indicating that no shoes were allowed beyond that point. (Finns clearly do not have the same fears of fungus as we do..this bothered me more than being naked) The main rooms outside of the sauna are -just as the exterior had indicated -concrete. But not industrial and cold; very warm and calming. On the farthest wall, there is a small white brick stove with chopped wood next to it. A single candle is lit in a tall alcove. The room is sparse with pine stools and a leather couch, with books on sauna culture on a coffee table. This room looks out through a glass wall to the interior courtyard, which contains one birch tree.
The courtyard is guarded on 3 sides by the building, allowing the fourth side to spill open into the bay and the Nordic air. It gradually steps down away from the warm sauna to greet the sea, first in concrete steps with wooden chairs and benches for cooling. One step down is a grass square with the single tree. Another step down is a small fire place and the ladder into the sea.
You walk up to the reception and exchange your entry fee for a small cloth to sit on and a brief run down of the place from a very soft spoken man:
Women to the right, men to the left.
There are lockers inside, a shower room and then the sauna.
Close the door to the sauna when entering the shower room.
There is a trough of cold water to splash over yourself if needed.
Pour the water in the sauna on the back of the stove.
No swimming suits allowed in the sauna.
Wear your suit to go swimming in the Baltic, just off the interior courtyard.
Water is out here in the reception. Go at your own pace and relax.
Don’t over do it (basically, please do not pass out)
So we passed through a pine paneled door into a damp, concrete room, found our wooden lockers, and undressed.
We hung our towels and swimming suits on hooks, ready for our first dip in the icy water, measuring 9 degrees Celsius that day (approx 48 Fahrenheit…balmy). We took our tiny butt towels, through the shower room -where we rinsed because we didn’t know if we were supposed to (plus, have you ever felt how hot your hair can get when it is dry in the sauna??) and then found some seats in the sauna room. The room had three levels of concrete steps with a top layer of wooden benches; the higher you go, the hotter it gets.
On one side on the top level, you can look out onto the bay, the dog park by our house, and the big wooden ships in the harbor.
We did a couple of rounds from the sauna, out to the courtyard to cool, and into the Baltic. They had opera and chant music playing in the courtyard, making it a very ideal place to relax while your body temperature came back down. After about an hour, we were all extremely relaxed, our skin felt alive and refreshed from the rounds, and we were pretty spent (and ready for wine).
It was a really fantastic experience. I am sad that I had not been before as it would have been incredible in the winter. Yes, you can still get in the water- they cut a hole in the ice.
I wanted to go, but was nervous about figuring it out on my own. Of course, there was some nervousness about the nakedness. Which, after the fact, seems completely ridiculous.
In all honesty, no one looks at anyone.
One of the girls read in one of the books in the lounge something that I found very beautiful about sauna culture. I cannot quote it but it said something like this:
When you strip off your clothes, you remove your identity.
In this way, you are both vulnerable and exposed, but you are all equal in the sauna, with the same vulnerability. I could infer nothing about the women in the concrete room. We all accepted each other in our own skin.
I have mentioned before, as well, what a positive effect I believe this acceptance of nudity has on body image. If only we were all raised in settings where nudity wasn’t (always) inappropriate but ritual for a family unit, where young children could observe that bodies are all different on different people, and how they change. I believe we would have a greater acceptance for how we look.
Anywho- it was a lovely experience, both culturally and personally. I will most likely start going more regularly and take advantage of such an amazing part of this culture in which we have the great fortune to be immersed. Furthermore, if was really so fun to have “girl time” which I really have not experienced much since we moved.
As I mentioned, there was no photography allowed, but I was able to snag some pictures off of google images to give you all a visual: