Sauna diplomacy: Discovering Finland's hot-and-cold tradition

Public sauna and restaurant by the Baltic Sea. [Mwangi Maina, Standard]

It’s a sticky, steamy business. Two or more do it naked in a small, dimly lit room. Suomi (Finland) as it is referred to in Finnish, I got a rare opportunity in April this year to visit this Nordic country ranked as the world’s happiest nation for the sixth time in a row.

Why are the Finns the happiest humans in the globe? The high level of social trust is one reason. For instance, the Finnish envoy in Nairobi, Pirkka Tapiola expect his wallet to be returned to him if he loses it in Finland.

Closer home- Kenyan adventurer Kim Musau accomplished an extraordinary feat by embarking on a six-month journey from Nairobi to Portugal on road, and in between his European escapades, Kim found himself in Finland, a country of three million Sauna’s for five million plus population located in Northern Europe, and shares land borders with Norway, Sweden, and Russia.

I saw Kim’s tweet talking about his extraordinaire experience in Finland and I couldn’t help but rekindle my memories when I visited Finland in April this year.

In a land where summer days seem endless and winters can be icy, Finland has a secret weapon in its diplomatic arsenal – saunas, and it is well-guarded. I had the chance to explore Finland's capital, Helsinki, a city that blends modern life with age-old traditions.

As I arrived in Helsinki, the weather was still quite chilly, but the people were warm and welcoming. April, as I learned from Viivi Nousiainen at their Nairobi embassy, is a great time to visit Finland. It's when the chill of winter starts to fade, and things begin to thaw.

I stayed at the Scandic Grand Central Helsinki, a beautiful hotel right in the heart of the city, and near the Central Railway Station. It was a great place to start my Finnish adventure.

One the evening of April 26, I got to experience something truly Finnish – the sauna. In Finland, saunas aren't just places to relax; they're a way of life. Our hosts, Anu Lehtinen and Rim Mezian took me and some fellow African journalists to Loyly, a famous public sauna and restaurant by the Baltic Sea.

Loyly had not one, but two kinds of saunas. There was the regular sauna, which you might be familiar with, and then there was the traditional Finnish smoke sauna. I decided to try them both.

Inside the sauna, it was hot, but it felt amazing. People were chatting, sipping on cold drinks like beer or gin and tonic. I met a Finnish lady who shared a local tip: when you're in the sauna and things get really hot, it's time to cool down – by jumping into the freezing Baltic Sea.

Journalist Mwangi Maina at a public sauna in Finland. [Mwangi Maina, Standard]

Feeling adventurous, I gave it a try. The water was a brisk 9 degrees Celsius (that's pretty cold!), but it was invigorating. The cold plunge is a tradition for the Finns, and it's believed to make you healthier. I kept jumping in and out, even though it was freezing. It was an experience I'll never forget.

Traditionally, it was the less wealthy Finnish families who had smoke saunas, and surprisingly, they were the healthiest. These saunas, with their charcoal-lined walls, had special health benefits.

After going back and forth between the scorching sauna and the icy sea, I decided it was time to warm up and relax. I took a shower and headed to the restaurant.

The Loyly Helsinki men's room was open and shared, which is part of Finnish sauna culture. So, despite feeling a bit shy, I joined the Finnish men and other users in their communal showers, embracing their traditions.

Afterward, I enjoyed a delicious dinner at the restaurant, feeling content and grateful for the unique sauna experience I'd just had.

In Finland, sauna diplomacy isn't just a quirky tradition; it's a way of making connections, building friendships, and spreading goodwill.

The significance of the Sauna in Finnish culture cannot be overstated. The National Statistics Office estimates that there are already more than three million saunas in the 5.3 million-person nation. One is provided for tenants' use in every apartment tower, and many individual flats also have one. Saunas can be found in factories, corporate headquarters, municipal halls, schools, and hospitals; the Finnish parliament even has a distinct wing with several saunas and showers.

 Finns bring their saunas with them when they travel. Saunas are available in every Finnish consulate, residence, and embassy. Finnish ambassadors frequently mingle with officials, diplomats, and journalists at some embassies while hot in the buff. While initially appearing to be another opulent amenity for diplomats, saunas are actually pretty normal for Finns and also encourage good diplomacy- I am told Finns forbid people from arguing in saunas and insist everyone comes out as friends.

After all, it’s pretty hard to imagine anyone bothering to argue when they’re sweaty and nude.