The room smells like the inside of a barbecue pit. It’s dark, with soot covered wood. There is one tiny window mounted on one wall for a glimpse of natural light. And then there’s the heat. It permeates the space, hitting you in the face like opening the door to an oven on full blast. “The sauna is ready,” says someone in the background, as our group begins disrobing, to sit naked in a literal sweatbox.
Welcome to a Finnish sauna.
I find the sauna culture in Finland to be fascinating. It is a quirk that only exists in few other countries and a concept that is completely foreign to me as an American. For a country with five million inhabitants, Finland boosts almost three million saunas. That’s about one per household. It’s a central part of the culture, not just a footnote.
It is a place to relax with friends and family, while completely naked, which I still find bizarre. I prefer to unwind fully clothed, but then again, I’m not Finnish.
I have been lucky enough to have taken part in not one, but two smoke saunas in the past six months. The smoke sauna is a truly Finnish experience and one that is rarely found outside the country. It is a dying breed even within Finland, due to its laborious nature compared to just flicking the switch on a modern, electrically powered sauna.
The smoke sauna is powered by a chimney-less stove, trapping the smoke within a room. The fire is built slowly and has to be closely watched, controlling the strength of the flames to avoid a potential disaster. At my last smoke sauna, the proprietor woke up at 2am to start the process so that the sauna would be ready for us by 11am, waking every hour to check on the fire and add more wood if necessary.
Smoke saunas are not for the faint of heart. It is a hard core sauna.
A pile of rocks are positioned on top of the stove, which heat as the fire builds. Once the stones are hot enough, the door to the sauna is opened, allowing the residual smoke to dissipate. The stones will remain warm for up to two days, generating heat up to 80C (176F). Like most saunas, a bucket of water is provided, and every ten minutes or so, you throw a large ladle worth of water on top of the stones, generating steam and maintaing the high temperature.
The scent of smoke still hangs heavy in the air, but not in a suffocating manner. Oddly, the smoke sauna, even with the extreme heat, does not feel oppressive. I rarely last more than few minutes in a normal sauna because it feels arduous to breathe. Somehow, the smoke sauna provides a cleaner heat. There is no burn when you breathe.
But don’t get me wrong. It is hot. Like really, hot.
The best part of the experience is the whole ritual around the sauna itself. There is the sauna, a cooling pond and a warming pool. After sweating it out in the sauna, you take a dip in the cooling pond, then relax in the warming pool. Crack a few beers (or a lot) and then repeat the process for the next four hours.
A quick piece of advice though. During my first smoke sauna this past April, I jumped into the “cooling pond,” which was a semi-frozen lake. The severity of the cold hit me like a truck. My heart felt like it was about to burst from my chest. I scrambled to grab the ladder at the end of the dock.
Once out of the water, I was instantly light headed. I felt on the verge of passing out, staggering back to the deck with the other guys. I plopped down on a bench, drank some water and prayed that I would not pass out. Later in the day, when I told someone about this, they looked stunned.
“You are not supposed to dunk you head under the water. It’s just a quick dip up to your shoulders. Dunking your head is dangerous,” said one of the Finns, shrugging at the apparently common knowledge.
I apologize. I was not aware of the rituals involved in jumping naked into a frozen pond.
Luckily, I made it out alive, though it took me a few hours to realize that during my mad dash to get out of the water, I sliced my shin on the dock ladder. My leg was covered in dried blood. I still have the scar. Good times.
Even though I was out of my element, the lone American among thirty Finns both times, the smoke sauna was a highlight of both recent trips to Finland. It is different. It is strange. I have never been naked for such long periods of time around people I barely know while consuming copious amount of alcohol.
We relaxed in the sauna, profusely sweating while we talked about work or relationships. We passed beers around in the warming pool, sang songs, made fun of each other. One person wore a London bobby hat and nothing else for four hours. Another wore a Borat-style “man-kini” (if you don’t know what that is, Google it – it is hilarious) for an entire afternoon. It was just a bunch of guys being guys, hanging out and socializing, albeit naked.
It felt natural in the most unnatural way. But it was undoubtably Finnish.
Have you done something while traveling that took you out of your element? Share your stories below!