I was in Helsinki, surveying the city from its fanciest rooftop restaurant. The setting sun glinted off the cruise ships in the harbor as fish merchants took down their stalls in the market. But a fleshier scene on the rooftop below me stole my attention.
It was six bankers wrapped in towels, taking a break from their time inside a rooftop sauna. One rotund guy was so pink from the heat that, with his white towel wrapped around his waist, he looked like a striped pool ball.
In all proper office buildings here — whether banks, insurance companies, or research institutes — a rooftop sauna is an essential part of the design. Post-work sauna time, with free snacks and drinks on hand, is an almost expected perk.
As a tourist, I wasn't welcome to join the bankers on the rooftop. What's more, for a culture so enamored of hot steam, the Finnish capital has relatively few public saunas. In this affluent city, most people have a sauna in their office or home, if not both. Rougher neighborhoods have been the areas most likely to need — and therefore have — a public sauna. (Even many of the saunas in workaday areas are upgrading; the sophisticated Löyly complex, located on the industrial waterfront, is a great example.) So, filled with sauna envy, I left my glitzy perch, got on the subway, and headed for the Kotiharjun Sauna, in the scruffy Sörnäinen district.
At first glance, it was clear that this place is the local hangout — and rarely sees a tourist. Outside, a vertical neon sign in simple red letters read: SAUNA. Under it a gang of big Finnish guys, wrapped only in small towels and drinking beer, filled a clutter of plastic chairs — expertly relaxing.
As there wasn't a word of English anywhere, I relied on the young attendant at the window for instructions. He explained the process: Pay the (reasonable) admission fee, pay a little more if you'd like the "full-body wash" (I did), grab a towel, strip, stow everything in an old wooden locker, wear the key like a bracelet, shower, enter the sauna…and reeeelax.
Inside, the sauna was far from the sleek, cedar pre-fab den of steam I'd expected. Against the rustic walls were six stepped levels of seating area, made of crude concrete with dark wooden railings, creating a barn-like amphitheater of steam and heat. A huge iron door closed off a stove that was busy burning its daily cubic meter of firewood. I climbed up to the first level, then the second, then third…and that level's heat was all I could take. Everyone else was on the top step — for maximum steam and heat.
I'd initially wondered if my towel was primarily for hygiene or modesty; once inside, the answer was clear: neither. This sauna was men-only, with a parallel world upstairs for women, though I've noticed no difference in protocol, or modesty, in mixed saunas. (Some public saunas do require bathing suits, and most have smaller sauna areas that you can pay extra to have to yourself for a block of time.)
Naked, with their hair wet and stringy, these working-class men looked both more timeless and somehow more Finnish. The entire scene was three colors: gray concrete, dark wood, and ruddy flesh. There was virtually no indication of what century we were in, but by looking at their faces, it was clear to me: This is Finland.
All the guys sat with a tin bucket between their legs, holding cool water that they sporadically splashed on their faces. In a traditional Finnish sauna, sauna-goers also periodically ladle water onto hot rocks to fill the room with more steam — but since that also increases the heat, as a visitor, I leave this to the pros up on the top level.
I asked about the bin of birch twigs sitting on the bottom concrete step. Slapping your skin with these, one man explained, enhances your circulation. The roughed-up leaves emit a refreshing birch aroma as well as chlorophyll, which opens the sinuses.
Part two of the true sauna experience is the cold-water douse. Let yourself work up a sweat, then, just before bursting, step under a Niagara of liquid ice. Suddenly the shower becomes a Cape Canaveral launch pad, as your body scatters to every corner of the universe. (Plunging into a sauna's cold pool has a similar, arguably even more intense effect). A moment later you're back together and can re-enter the steam room. Repeat as necessary.
I love a sauna that offers a thorough scrub down as an add-on treat. I noticed an aproned woman with the mien of Soviet tractor driver who was splashing water onto a naked guy laid out on a table. Her job was to scour men, one at a time, all day long. After this one guy's work-over from her, he looked like a lifeless Viking gumby.
Awkwardly I asked, "Me next?"
She welcomed me to her table.
I asked, "Up or down?"
She pushed me flat, belly up, and said, "This is good. Now, I wash you twice."
Lying there naked, I felt like a salmon on a cleaning table, ready for gutting. With sudsy mitts, she worked me over. Then she hosed me off, which made me feel even more like a salmon. It was extremely relaxing. Moving from deep in my scalp to between my toes, she washed me a second time.
And then, barely two hours after I'd entered the vaporized fountain of youth, it was over. Stepping back out into the gritty Helsinki neighborhood, I was clean, relaxed, and reminded that — for bankers, laborers, and tourists, too — the Finnish sauna is the great equalizer…and that this ritual at the heart of Finnish culture is alive and well.