Sauna, Karaoke and other Finnish inventions

Sauna is a great Finnish invention. It is not the only one: there’s also Moomins, Angry Birds, the original Nokia cell phone, and my favourite, the dish-drying cupboard or Astiankuivauskaappi, which, perhaps because of the long name, didn’t catch on in the rest of the world, but I find very practical. (In Finland, all apartments have dish-drying cabinets like that on top of the sink.)

But I want to talk about sauna. It is really their greatest invention and shows the resilience and resourcefulness of the Finns.

Now, think about it. These people were born in a place where it’s winter for six months. They have hundred of lakes and even sea beaches, but the water is usually ice-cold most of the time, even in Summer. So what to do?

The Finnish solution was to create small cabins where you can artificially warm up your body until it gets extremely hot — in some saunas, even close to incineration point — that afterwards even swimming in an ice-cold lake becomes a relief. Rinse, and repeat. Warm, cold, warm, cold, warm cold.

There are usually two types of saunas in Finland. The traditional ones, where male and female saunas are separated, and you have to go in completely naked (except for swimming in the lake, where you have to put on your swimsuit again). And then there’s the mixed saunas, where you usually have to be in the sauna with a swimsuit as well. There are a few mixed saunas where nudity for men and women together is the norm, but they are an exception.

Now, remember, saunas are not beaches. People don’t go here to look at each others’ bodies, they go to sweat. You may talk about having a “beach body”, but there is no such thing as a “sauna body”. And you have to be comfortable enough with yours to be there.

Some say that sauna helps you to lose weight, but I saw no evidence of that. Most people I’ve seen in public saunas were overweight, including a guy who seemed to be Finland’s sumo champion and occupied a whole bench just by himself.

I was recently in Tampere, which is considered Finland’s sauna capital. Before that, I had visited only a local sauna frequented by tourists and artsy types, where the temperature was usually kept mild, but in Tampere…

Oh, you haven’t really been in a sauna until you’ve gone to a public sauna in Tampere, such as Rauhauniemi, where they crank up the temperature to the max and pour water on the rocks to form water vapor (löyli) every 30 seconds, in a room crowded with old people, young people, and even families with small children. And then, when you feel your skin burning, you go to swim in a very cold lake while it’s windy and cold outside and strong waves chill you to the bone. The coldest the water, the better. If you think the place is crowded in spring and summer, wait to see it in winter, when supposedly there are long lines to get into a hole in the frozen lake.

Just to give you an idea of Finns’ obsession with sauna, there are more saunas in Finland than there are buildings and cars. Most people have at least one sauna in their home or apartment complex or holiday home, and some more than one. A retired factory worker that I met in the public sauna told me that, if he won the lottery, he would use the money to “build a big sauna, like this one, in my home.”

There was a yearly sauna championship in Finland until 2010. The idea was to see who could withstand the highest temperature for the longest time. But in that year’s competition, one of the finalists, a Russian man, died (thus earning second place), and the winner, a Finn, got third degree burns and ended up in the hospital.

The competition has been banned since then.

At night, I went to Helsinki to a karaoke place with a local friend. Karaoke is another Finnish passion. I was almost going to say “Finnish invention”, but of course they didn’t invent it, the Japanese did. And yet… Just as there is a “Finnish tango”, we might have to talk about “Finnish karaoke”, too.

Karaoke is popular all over the world, but it is particularly loved among Asians and Nordics. I don’t know why, but some say it may have to do with the general introversion of people. The more introverted a society, the more karaoke is successful. It is a rare social occasion where you are allowed to let yourself go.

Now, if you go to a karaoke in Finland, you will notice that things start very slowly. At first, say, around 9 or 10 PM, no one or almost no one is singing. The stage is empty even if the tables are full — Finns have to drink at least three beers or “lonkeros” before they feel uninhibited enough to sing. By midnight, however, you have one song after another, and waiting for your turn can take over one hour in the most crowded bars.

Finns are also very supportive of anyone who dares going up the stage. There is no such thing as bad singing in Finnish karaoke. Finnish pop songs are particularly loved, of course, but ABBA and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” are also clear winners. But you can sing almost any song in any language, including Spanish, Estonian, Russian and Mandarin, and you will be sure to get an applause and smiles.