Visit Fin­land, get (nearly) naked with strangers

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

IS strip­ping down and get­ting sweaty with peo­ple you don’t know your kind of thing? In Fin­land, de­spite an as­tound­ing 2 mil­lion pri­vate saunas, the hottest trend sweep­ing the sweat­tank lov­ing coun­try is public saunas.

They’re Helsinki’s coolest spots this sum­mer, draw­ing Finns and tourists of all ages to un­wind on wooden benches in slick water­front lo­cales where the mer­cury hits at least 80 de­grees Cel­sius (176 de­grees Fahren­heit).

A trendy new bou­tique sauna called Loyly (Fin­nish for “Steam”) opened its doors on the cap­i­tal’s shore­line in May and was such an in­stant hit that an on­line reser­va­tion is a must on sunny days.

On a re­cent visit, a group of men and women who went to univer­sity to­gether cel­e­brated Lin­nea Remes’ 27th birth­day by hav­ing a sauna – a nor­mal thing for friends in Fin­land where saunas are an in­te­gral part of daily life and all ma­jor cel­e­bra­tions year-round.

Remes has a sauna at home up to four times a week so her birth­day choice was not for want of a good sweat.

“We thought that this was a fun way to pass time to­gether and en­joy our­selves,” Remes told AFP on the sea­side ter­race where the group cooled off be­fore another round in the hot­box.

While Finns strip down to their birth­day suits in their pri­vate saunas, the public ones ei­ther of­fer dif­fer­ent rooms for men and women or re­quire swim­suits in uni­sex saunas.

The sauna can be a mo­ment to de-stress or a com­ple­ment to a good work­out. A cou­ple of rounds is typ­i­cal, with a cool shower and maybe a drink in be­tween, or prefer­ably a dip into a lake or the sea. In win­ter, a roll in the snow is even bet­ter.

But saunas have been used for big­ger goals – seal­ing busi­ness deals and even se­ri­ous diplo­macy. Dur­ing the Cold War, Urho Kekko­nen, who served as pres­i­dent for 26 years, ne­go­ti­ated with Soviet diplo­mats in the sauna of his of­fi­cial res­i­dence.

It is pre­cisely the so­cial as­pect of a public sauna that ex­plains its coun­try-wide re­nais­sance.

Over the cen­turies Finns used saunas for wash­ing, re­lax­ing and even giv­ing birth. But the mod­ern lux­ury of run­ning water in vir­tu­ally all res­i­dences spelt the demise of the pop­u­lar old public sauna as peo­ple started in­stalling their own pri­vate hot rooms.

Nowa­days most houses and new apart­ments in Fin­land come with a pri­vate sauna. Statis­tics Fin­land es­ti­mates there are more than 2 mil­lion saunas for a na­tion of 5.5 mil­lion peo­ple.

At the same time, one in five Finns today lives on their own.

“Many peo­ple live alone nowa­days but yearn for that sense of com­mu­nity and com­mon ex­pe­ri­ence. A sauna is the best for that, an in­ti­mate place where you can ex­change ideas with whomever hap­pens to sit next to you,” said Raoul Grun­stein, head of Al­las Sea Pool, another new public sauna and spa set to open this month.

Grun­stein has such faith in the ap­peal of public saunas that he and his part­ners in­vested 10 mil­lion eu­ros (US$11 mil­lion) in the spa, which has three saunas and three pools float­ing in the sea right on Helsinki’s main mar­ket square op­po­site the pres­i­den­tial palace.

Like Loyly, the fa­cil­ity boasts strik­ing Nordic de­sign and ar­chi­tec­ture.

Loyly’s own­ers – law­maker An­tero Var­tia and ac­tor Jasper Paakko­nen, known to in­ter­na­tional au­di­ences for his role in the Ir­ishCana­dian TV se­ries Vik­ings – spent big, in­vest­ing 6.3 mil­lion eu­ros ($6.9 mil­lion) in a cu­bic de­sign that holds three tra­di­tional wood-heated saunas, one of them a chim­ney­less smoke sauna.

“The city’s tourism au­thor­i­ties have told us they be­lieve this will shortly be­come one of Helsinki’s top three at­trac­tions,” Paakko­nen said.

At Loyly’s, Priya Sel­varaj, a 42-year-old pro­fes­sor vis­it­ing from Chen­nai, In­dia, mar­velled at the ex­pe­ri­ence, in­clud­ing a coura­geous post-sauna dip into the Baltic Sea, where water was a down­right chilly 11 de­grees Cel­sius (52 de­grees Fahren­heit).

“I have taken sauna treat­ments back home in the south­ern part of In­dia ... and it’s not new to us,” she said, “but to have a coun­try or a city where it’s thriv­ing on spas!”

The sauna’s ap­peal is so strong in Fin­land that even the US-based fast­food chain Burger King wants its Fin­nish shops to par­take: It re­cently opened a sauna at one of its Helsinki restau­rants, avail­able for groups upon reser­va­tion.

The re­vival of public saunas goes back to 2011 when a few Helsinkians built Som­pasauna, an un­li­censed sauna made of waste ma­te­ri­als in the mid­dle of an old har­bour-turned­con­struc­tion site.

The city’s first re­ac­tion was to tear it down.

But the free-of-charge, mixed and nude sauna ap­pealed to many and its fans have re­built the small shack ev­ery spring.

This year the city hon­oured it as Helsinki’s “cul­tural act” of the year.

Photo: AFP

Fin­nish ac­tor Jasper Paakko­nen re­laxes in­side the trendy new bou­tique sauna called Loyly (Fin­nish for “Steam”), in Helsinki, on July 7.

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