Good, clean, sweaty fun

  • 2010-09-09
  • Interview by Philip Birzulis

Despite one of the warmest summers on record, many Europeans like to get hotter still. An exhibition at the Natural History Museum of Latvia titled “Pirts, sauna, hamami, furdo: Four European bathing traditions,” held this past July, looked at the traditional ways of getting clean in different parts of the continent. The event brought together Finnish and Latvian sauna experts for talking and sweating together, and we caught up with Risto Elomaa from the Finnish Sauna Society to get some steam up.

Finland has a population of 5.2 million people and 3 million saunas. Why are saunas such an important part of life in your country?
The sauna is a typical Finnish tradition that has been a typical part of Finnish family life for a very long time. Many Finns have summer houses, and the sauna is a place to socialize, where you invite your friends, to relax and also to wash yourself. Of those 3 million saunas, about 30,000 are real, traditional Finnish saunas – smoke saunas. A typical thing today is when new apartment houses are built there are saunas even in the small apartments. But these aren’t real saunas.

What is the difference between Finnish saunas and the saunas you have experienced in Latvia?
Saunas across northern Europe are very similar. But here in Latvia, it is surprising how many different types of herbs and plants are used in the besoms (sets of twigs used in the bathing process – ed.). And in Latvia the spiritual aspects of the sauna are stronger than in Finland – it is more than just a place to wash.

You recently attended a conference in Japan dedicated to saunas. How is sauna culture spreading to Asian countries?
There are a lot of saunas in Asia, especially in Japan. They have a slightly different way of thinking, and traditional Japanese baths are not really saunas. But today most Japanese spas, or onsens, also have Finnish types of sauna. The difference is that in most cases people aren’t allowed to throw water on stones, not just because it might be too hot, but also as a precaution, because if don’t know how to do it you could burn your face and owner of sauna has to pay. So as in Latvia, they have a pirtnieks, or sauna master, to throw water. There are many log saunas in Japan which are either imported or built in Japan according to Finnish designs. Japan is the biggest market outside Germany for Finnish saunas, and Sweden is an even bigger exporter of saunas to Japan. The market is also opening in South Korea, China and Mongolia. There are already hundreds of Finnish-type saunas in China.

Asian countries have very different climates and cultures – what is it that attracts their people to saunas?
After a hot water bath or sauna you feel relaxed, which is important in modern life. Especially in Japan, many people are looking for a “wellbeing” brand to find happiness, relaxation and wellbeing. In Japan ageing is a big problem and older people want to use this bathing. In Japan public baths are very common and you find them on every corner. They are very cheap, and since most Japanese apartments still don’t have showers, people go to public baths for cleaning themselves - just like in Northern Europe a few generations ago.

Do Finnish businessmen still do deals in saunas?
Yes and no. It’s a bit of a joke really. But we do like to take our business friends to the sauna, because it’s a place where there are no titles. I have sat in the sauna with an ex-president of Finland, and he is Martti and I am Risto. And it’s the same with big bosses from some company – you become friends. But the sauna is not really a place for negotiations. But there is a story about our former President Kekonnen. He liked the sauna hot and he used to take the Russian diplomats to the sauna. And he wouldn’t let them out before they had signed the papers…