Sauna culture on the rise in Helsinki

Risto Elomaa, chairman of the International Sauna Society, has sat on sauna platforms for thousands of hours over the course of his life. Risto, who has pursued a career in foreign trade, has thrown water on hot sauna stones in locations ranging from Dar es Salaam and Soul to Siberia. The saunas this native-born resident of Helsinki loves the most, however, are the city´s saunas, which he knows like the back of his hand – and which he would like other people to experience too.

“Saunas could be turned into a tourist attraction for Helsinki,” says Risto, and tells us that nearly every week he has a sauna with friends from abroad in the city´s saunas. Every time, they are equally captivated by the modern atmosphere of the Culture Sauna in Merihaka designed by architect Tuomas Toivonen and designer Nene Tsubo, by the bygone charm of the Kotharju Sauna built in 1928 or by the smoke saunas of the Finnish Sauna Society in Lauttasaari.


Love of saunas started in childhood

Risto Elomaa´s love of saunas began in the 1950s when as a primary schoolchild he had a sauna once a week at the Wellamo public sauna in the district of Kruununhaka. Its platforms were white marble and the large, one-time-heated wood-burning stove gave off wonderful steam. “I usually had just enough money to buy a bottle of red lemonade from the cashier lady,” Risto recalls. “And because my mother was of the view that I didn´t know how to wash my hair myself, the washer lady did it for me,” he says with a grin.

During Risto´s childhood, few homes in Helsinki had bathrooms and so the city´s 125 saunas were very busy. “Every month, half of Helsinki´s residents visited them.”

When the facilities in apartments improved, one sauna after the other had to close down. Risto tried to fight against this trend and in 1962, together with some old schoolmates, he established the Helsinki Sauna Club whose members met up regularly on the platforms of public saunas.


Sauna in the tropics

Along with taking saunas, Risto Elomaa graduated as an engineer, and in the 1970s he moved to Zambia to head YIT´s construction projects. Under Risto, large cold storage warehouses and a vocational school – as well as a couple of saunas rose in various parts of the country.

“I got to know Martti Ahtisaari, the then Ambassador to Zambia, who had his own sauna in Dar es Salaam. We built a sauna for the embassy in Lusaka and another one for my place of work,” Risto explains.

He admits that taking a sauna in the tropics might sound crazy. “But when you step out from a 80-degree sauna to cool off, 40 degrees seem cool. The locals were very enthusiastic about taking saunas too,” says Risto with a smile.

After returning from Zambia, Risto engaged in civil disobedience for the first time in his life – on account of saunas. In 1982, he objected to the legendary public sauna located on Pietarinkatu street being demolished and lay down in its courtyard with other demonstrators to prevent the demolition crew´s access. The protest failed, however. According to Risto, after the demolition of the Pietarinkatu sauna, Helsinki´s sauna culture languished in the throes of demise for a couple of decades.


A new renaissance in sauna culture

The communal sauna culture has begun to revive in the 2000s and the three remaining public saunas – Arla, Hermanni and Kotiharju –have started to get a new, young clientele. Public saunas in all their authenticity have become trendy again and their numbers increased in 2013 when Tsuboi´s and Toivonen´s Culture Sauna was built.

This year the range of choice will expand further, as the City of Helsinki is building a public sauna on the island of Lonna. In the spring “Löyly”, a sauna featuring a terrace and restaurant owned by actor Jasper Pääkkönen and Member of Parliament Antero Vartia, will open in Hernesaari. Something of the rise in the popularity of the sauna culture is indicated by Helsinki Sauna Day when dozens of saunas in private homes are heated for the use of people previously unknown to the owners.

Risto Elomaa is delighted with the development. “Public saunas are places were you can easily get to know people. In the sauna you divest yourself not only of your clothes but also of your title.

Risto´s own favourite saunas in Helsinki include the Finnish Sauna Society´s four smoke saunas and two wood-heated saunas in Lauttasaari.

“Väskiniemi is one of the finest places in Finland to enjoy a sauna. You always meet acquaintances in a sauna. And, if you don´t want to socialise, you can sit alone in peace and quiet in a sauna, which is place of meditation.


Text and picture: Venla Pystynen


Risto Elomaa nominated Jasper Pääkkönen as a future maker of Helsinki.