Looking for a way to get naked and meet people? No, not like that. Put that dirty thought away. On 11 March Helsinki will hold its third free National Sauna Day– with over 40 public and private saunas taking part. Organised as a community initiative, the event puts the social aspect of sauna front and centre.
Jaakko Blomberg, the event’s founder, shares the bare truth of the Finns' obsession with getting naked and sweaty.
“Sauna is a really important part of Finnish culture. We are so used to go to one that it's hard to imagine life without it. It's associated with Saturdays, summer cottages, weddings, student parties, group sports…We have about three million saunas in Finland and only five and a half million people. That tells you something about the importance of sauna."
Sauna, used as a verb and a noun in Finland, becomes (in public anyway) a single sex activity once you’re a teenager – women go with girlfriends, mothers and sisters – the men go with their male counterparts. Sweaty sessions in the wood-heated pine saunas are interspersed with dips in ice cold water and lubricated with beers and chat. Even after a couple of 10 minute stints in a sauna, broken up with a cold beer, stress seems to melt away. It’s a long, languorous way to spend an afternoon or evening – another reason why Sauna Day looks to repopulate the sauna.
“Sauna is the way to relax for a while” explains Blomberg, “but for me sauna is almost always a social event too.”
National Sauna's Day was first held in March 2016 and saw 1,500 Finns get naked
Finnish saunas aren’t the place to sit staring at the floor too embarrassed to look at naked flesh. It’s a communal and communicative experience and the social element is something Blomberg wants to promote, both amongst locals and visitors.
“People often think that Finns are not very social people. I'm not so sure about it because every time there is a chance to do something together people are really excited about it," he explains.
“Helsinki Sauna Day solves many problems at the same time: 1) we have many unused saunas 2) Finns love to go to sauna but many don't have the chance to do it and 3) there are not many chances to meet other people after summer.”
A couple of decades ago most private apartments in the capital would have had access to a private, communal or public sauna but rising housing costs along with various other factors have seen sauna usage fall. This has had a knock on effect on the city’s real life social network.
“We used to have tens of public saunas in Helsinki but at some point there were only three.” he says. “Now people are again looking for more chances to meet each other in many ways and public saunas are becoming more popular again.”
“I want to give people chances to meet each other, to do something together, be nice to each other, be creative and use the resources we have in a better way,” says Blomberg. “These events create solidarity, understanding, social wellbeing and security. Helsinki Sauna Day shows that we are all equal and it's not just about money in this world but about small deeds, sharing, meeting people and doing together.”
“People often think that Finns are not very social people. I'm not so sure about it because every time there is a chance to do something together people are really excited about it”
Alongside Blomberg others are trying to get Finns back into their traditional pastime – including Löyly a modern minimalist communal sauna on the Hernesaari seafront that also houses a seasonal restaurant and wonderful terrace. Having opened in June 2016, the sauna is involved in the third National Sauna Day this March.
“The first time there were no real public saunas in the event, just Sompasauna - a DIY sauna, that is always open for everyone. Now we have also our newest public saunas, Löyly and Allas taking part. We’ll have over 40 saunas in all,” Blomberg says.
At the first event earlier this year local people and businesses opened up their private saunas for free bookings, including Blomberg, who let a troop of sceptical journalists and local people strip off in his flat’s private sauna. Public saunas varied from ones on the back of pick up trucks on the beach, to an ex-military tent that tours festivals. Naked people were a common sight all over town and no one batted a misty eyelid with 1,500 people taking part. This year Blomberg hopes even more people will strip off and get social.
And the secret to a good sauna?
“It’s got to be heated with wood and the ‘löyly’ (meaning the magic combination of steam and heat) should be good. It needs to be warm and not too dry.”
Helsinki Sauna Day takes place on 29 October 2016. Check out the sauna list and book your session here.
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