For a traveller, the Finnish sauna culture might seem like a method of torture. What is so fun about being burnt alive in a small room where you cannot breathe properly? Yet, sauna is so important to Finns, you really should give it a try in order to get a better grasp of their mentality and culture. Often one need’s a guided sauna experience to really understand it. What to do, how to behave, when to get out. Also, a common mistake is to head to an overly hot and dry sauna, heated with electricity. Nobody likes that.
The perfect “löyly” is something Finns are always seeking. The word cannot be translated as it means more than just steam. Löyly is a concept of how the steam travels and stays inside the sauna, how humid it is and what the temperature is – not burning hot nor too bleak.
The trick for the perfect löyly experience lies in the way the sauna is heated. In fact, it is a form of art.
On the shore of Luosujärvi, there is a pittoresque old log cabin, surrounded by smaller wooden houses. This is Rönölä Sauna World. One of the owners, Jukka Mäkelä is an expert in heating saunas. Together with his spouse Anne Lehtovuori they have three different saunas in the property.
One of the three is an ancient type of sauna, the smoke sauna. They were popular all the way from the Iron Age to the 1930’s. Actually, nowadays smoke saunas are becoming more and more popular again. Heating up a smoke sauna is an art not suited for the short tempered. At Rönölä Jukka tends the sauna he built himself for 8 hours before it is ready! Generally they take 4–6 hours to prepare. Smoke sauna does not have a chimney, so the smoke from the fire under the stove stays inside. The especially large stove is covered with hundreds of kilograms of rocks. They take a lot of time to heat up. Once the temperature is warm enough, one needs to let out the smoke containing carbon monoxide before going in. The smoke vanishes with steam as water is thrown on the rocks. But the gentle and pleasant smell of smoke stays in. Jukka lets the steam out many times before he is content. Also it is a matter of pleasantness.
– If people go in after six hours, the steam is very feisty, the devil himself wouldn’t sit there, Jukka says.
– You need to let the stove mellow down and then you can go. The steam must feel soft.
After all the hard work, the warmth stays in a smoke sauna for a long time. If heated up for the evening, the sauna is still nice and warm the next morning. At Rönölä, the 760 kilograms of rocks on the stove store heat efficiently. Jukka loves the smoke sauna in the morning.
– You get wonderful löyly in the morning. It is very humid.
Anne likes the unique atmosphere and smell of the smoke sauna. It is very silent, as there is no fire under the stove when you go in to bathe. And the thick log walls are practically soundproof.
– The world stops. Even if there is a storm raging outside, in the sauna you are like in womb. All the evil of the world is gone.
The original sauna at Rönölä is called the Rustic Sauna. It is a large wood-heated sauna from the 1960’s. It used to be the bathing place of lumberjacks staying at the main building. Beside the stove there is a large cauldron full of water, warming together with the sauna. You wash yourself by mixing cold and hot water in a bucket and pouring it on yourself by hand. No showers here. It takes a couple of hours to heat the sauna to a nice warm temperature. You have to keep the fire alive though, to keep the stove hot enough for good löyly. This type of sauna is the most popular in Finland and can be found in most of the summer cottages.
The third wood-burning sauna of Rönölä is all about the view opening to the lake. It is heated rather quickly and due to the easiness, Anne and Jukka use this sauna the most. Also, this is the only sauna with modern showers and toilets.
– It is nice and easy for people who are not used to “back to basics” saunas, Anne explains.
However, the favourite sauna of the couple is the smoke sauna. Jukka feels the löyly is the nicest there, and Anne recalls she has spent as many as 4-5 hours in there, going swimming and back in the sauna, back and forth.
The health benefits of sauna are not to be undermined. It heals both body and mind.
The heat relaxes muscle tension. When it gets too sweaty, you step outside and plunge in the water - usually an ice cold lake. The cold shock boosts the immune system and leaves you super relaxed, full of endorphins. Repeat sauna and icy plunge a few times and deep sleep is guaranteed.
A Finnish sauna tradition is all about calming down. Letting go of any stressful thoughts. Just sitting and relaxing. Also Anne and Jukka welcome people who are ready to slow down the pace.
– It is one kind of mindfulness to be in sauna, concentrating and calming yourself down, Anne recommends.
Sauna in numbers
Finnish population: 5 513 130
Number of dwellings: 3 003 000
Cars in use: 2 692 785
Saunas in flats: 1 651 000
Saunas at cottages (estimate): 797 845
Mobile saunas (estimate): 9800
Saunas in total (estimate): 3 000 000
Saunas burnt down yearly: 200
Statistics mainly from year 2017
History of Sauna is the history of all Finns
The steam room plays a huge role in the Finnish culture. The first known sauna in Finland is a 10 000 year old hole in the ground. Later on wooden saunas became the norm. When moving to a new area, one would first build a sauna and only then the actual house. In the olden days, women gave birth in sauna. Also it was the place where the dead were washed for their last journey. Sauna was considered the most hygienic place of a household and there was warm water available. Nowadays it is a known fact that wood has antibacterial properties. Today there are about as many saunas as there cars, if not more. There is an own sauna for more than every other Finn. They come in different shapes and forms: there are even mobile saunas on wheels, tent saunas and floating saunas. The most popular sauna has a wood burning stove, but the most common ones in city apartments are electric stoves. One thing is certain – Finns cannot manage without sauna.
There are saunas for private reservations at Ylläksen Yöpuu (see contact info on page 10), Aurora Estate, Rönölä, Hotel Seita and Haltiakammi. An open smoke sauna is available without booking at Jeris Spa, Jerisjärvi, about an hour’s drive from Ylläs. Bring a swimsuit!