Approaching this place of calm and swimming from the very centre of Helsinki seemed straightforward, until Pauline and I encountered various (deep) road works. Navigating them by twisting and turning around the various closed streets, we found the water front, as much by knowing that the ocean is most usually downhill, and a little help from Uncle Google. I am resistant to artificial intelligence makingor me, but Pauline was right, just go with it. Once at the waterfront, Central Helsinki across a two hundred meter or so channel, busy motor freeway bridge crossing it, it became straightforward at last, once under the bridge, going toward the ocean proper. The clue was in the big red sign saying ‘sauna’ above a bunker-like building, right on the point between the channel and the ocean. Anne Katrine recommended this place above the others, and she is usually right (but nicely she doesn’t make a point of saying that, ever). The aesthetic, from a distance, was post-modern with 1950s neon signage – so far so good. We got there as the sun was low on the horizon, a slit of golden yellow caught us as well approached the bunker, which it was now apparent, had a smallish pyramid on top. Not quite sure, I thought illuminate-meet post-modern-meet the fifties. There is plenty of quirky playful architecture out there, but I wasn’t sure of the message the building was signalling – playful sauna sounds pretty dodgy, I thought. Once at the front door, the sign said ‘open’, the door pushed open with a small effort, and we were in, into warm fog and in among a crowd of shoes and boots on a big mat. The reflex was of course to take our shoes off. So far so straightforward. Then the purchase of tickets – straightforward for Pauline, but I had to wait. There were no spare lockers, politely explained the very polite, quiet spoken, petite Japanese woman behind the counter. I urged Pauline to go ahead; while waiting a moment, I looked to the end of the reception area, across to the sliding doors and the outdoors – brown water in the distance. I took a walk to the doors and went out. By now my socks were soaked from the damp and the puddles in the wait area, but this didn’t matter. What mattered to me was the need for a swim, a desire really ignited upon seeing the water, the ladder going down into it. I went back to the desk and asked if I could have a quick dip while waiting for a locker. “Not really” said the Japanese lady, speaking with a quiet, polite firmness. “I understand your urge” she said, but it won’t be long. “We don’t know you” she continued, and “it is good to wait also”. So I waited, first on a horseshoe shaped wooden stool, and then on a sofa, as two men who had been waiting were given their locker keys and their small towels for sitting on in the sauna. The stool was one of several, beautifully crafted, raw blond wood, solid, each designed and built for the long-haul. The coffee table in front of the sofa was also wooden, again beautifully crafted, again solid, again blond. There were arts magazines thereupon, and I updated my knowledge of artists using artificial intelligence including Team Lab, in Tokyo. There were people going out to the water, and into the changing rooms, where I anticipated the saunas to be – men and women separate, naked in the sauna, swim-dressed for the ocean water. Most seemed to dip, but there were a few who swam properly, for several minutes, before going back into the sauna.
I waited, not too long, maybe fifteen minutes, but I didn’t really know – the Japanese co-owner (it turned out to be) had cast her spell of calm upon me. I looked to the enamel mugs, on a wooden set of shelves, drinking water for sauna-takers. I was assured that this was the purest drinking water in the whole of Scandinavia. I took a mug and took water, and what could I say? It was the purest and nicest drinking water in the whole of Scandinavia, as I perceived to be so, at that moment. I drank it mindfully, according to Marina Abramovic’s video instructions. As people either waited, or socialised between sauna-sittings (wearing towels for modesty), or lingered after their swim-sauna, the two owners, she and a tall Finnish man, both wearing black smocks, brought tea with a jar of honey for those that wanted it. Each cup of tea was presented with a gentle smile, an honorific thank you, and a bow. It was slowly coming to my attention that I was inadvertently back in Japan, in a Finlandic version of a Japanese bath house. I have been to Japan many times, first in 1994 when I had a Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science Fellowship (equivalent in prestige to the Royal Society or National Academy of Science Fellowships) to do research at the University of Tokyo. I was not the passionate swimmer I am now, but I got to take baths in a number of bath houses, mostly in rural areas, in places positioned for their energy and their view of nature. What came to mind specifically was a bath house in Kyushu which overlooked Mount Aso, an active volcano with sulphurous plumes and fumes. The owner interrupted my spectacular thought, politely, again slowly, with a gentle smile, as she brought me my sauna towel and locker key. The smile had words attached - “today, the water is two degrees” she said, sensing that this knowledge would bring me enjoyment. From my point of view, I was seeking a colder swim than I could get in the fading winter of the UK. From her point of view, she may have been imparting news that the water was warming up. Either way, it didn’t matter – the water would be good. I was informed by another person that it could easily go below zero Celsius, because the harbour is open to the ocean, has salt water. This year it had only gone to minus one in Helsinki. I agreed that this was good, without signalling whether I thought it was good because it wasn’t as cold as usual, or good because it never gets that cold in the UK. Gentle ambiguity seemed to be the call of the day, or at least of Kulttuurisauna. I felt I had left the straightforward unambiguous speaking of Finland and somehow found myself in the shadow-lands of Japan, with its nuanced language,
tissue-screens, the floating, fleeting, transient world of ukiyo.
I slapped myself in the face mentally, my turn had come, this was not Edo period Japan, this was Finland, and I took the plunge – not into the water, but into the changing rooms, where more nuanced language and practice was expected. Not quite ukiyo, but embracing the spirit of it, the changing room was austere but had everything needed, no more, no less. More crafted wood. Concrete floor – basic concrete – don’t waste resources where there is no need to. I went straight out into the ocean water – I broke with convention, which is to sauna first – my urge, tempered by the wait in the shadow lands, helped by the presence of several Japanese men and women in bath kimonos, was surging back. This must be where Japanese people living in Helsinki come, I thought, without verifying that thought. Water, not verification, called. I went in slowly, gently, step by step, while a few people watched, including Pauline. I swam to the limit of the swimming area, maybe 30 meters, and they watched. I came out slowly, Pauline reassuring the watchers that I did this every day through winter. The response to Pauline was “we do not know him” and “he may not know what can happen if you are not practiced in winter swimming”. I enjoyed the slow, steady swim, which bit into my hands, then feet, then limbs. I enjoyed the getting out, enjoyed the feeling of pain and numbness receding and as blood flowed back to my bodily periphery. I walked to the sauna adopting the slow walking disposition that everyone doing what I was doing here, was doing. Through the changing room, to a shower room, a very basic concrete shower room, with tepid water, not hot. Then I did as was done my all the men passing from shower room to sauna – I took off my togs, showered, and went into the men’s sauna. Which was hot and smoky. The light, seen through the steam and smoke, through the small slit, was changing from golden to grey. One large naked man seemed to be in charge of the water pouring, first gentle and slow, then a fierce dumping of a ladle of water directly into the stove, the front open like an open-range cooker. This was like a scene from a movie, Last of the Samurai, or some such. But in Finnish, not Japanese. A fierce cloud of smoky steam rose to the ceiling and spread to the edges of the box-like sauna and slowed descended on us all, from the ceiling and walls inward. I had seated myself on the top level, where the heat is greatest. As the smoke-steam lowered itself and clinged to my body, I had to climb down to a lower level. I came in to the sauna cold to the core and now had scorching heat-smoke entering my lungs. Resisting the urge to find my asthma inhaler, I though again of Mount Aso – on that particular trip, Tsukasa Inaoka took me walking up this steaming volcano, right to the edge. He was in romantic mood as he told me of the people who come to this very place to throw themselves into the volcano, to commit suicide by having the molten earth devour them, reduce them to the ash that was periodically spewed out. He said that many asthmatics die here too, usually not on purpose, as the sulphur-fumes terminally choke them. Somehow knowing there was worse than Kulttuurisauna smoke-steam (just add sulphur, I thought, bring it on…), that I was not taking a terminal leap into the mouth of an active volcano, had a calming effect. ‘Remember to breathe’ I thought. ‘Don’t stop breathing’ – I settled my breathing. Once calmed and equilibrated, I looked right and left, up and down. There was one large cast-iron stove, taller than the tallest man, powered with seasoned wood – the same stove for the men’s and women’s sauna, each being the mirror of the other. The tall man pouring water onto the sauna fire used a ladle with a very long handle, whispering as he poured – gentle this time, more steam than smoke. The men’s sauna was generally quiet, and we could hear the chatter from the women’s sauna, just two layers of Siberian pinewood, on the other side of the wall, stove-side. It seemed to be a jolly murmur. The stove was fed from the outside, so that the schedule and constant routine of keeping the sauna fired up could not be seen from inside, not disturbing the flow of air and steam and calm. The seating and walls seemed to be of a more crafted and smooth concrete than that in the the shower room. I generally do not love concrete, but this concrete made me happy – it was solid, substantive, held the heat and was smooth to the touch. Only at the top level were the seats wooden (concrete would be too hot, even with a little sauna towel to sit on). The changing room – shower – sauna arrangement was exactly as a Japanese bath house would have it, only instead of a huge communal hot bath (in which one sits naked, and the purpose of which is to relax) there is a sauna (in which one again sits naked, and the purpose of which again is to relax).
After the sauna, the practice is to put ones togs on again, to go out into the more public area, through the wait area (as I perceived it to be initially, but actually a place to hang out during and after the session). I watched and did as others did, only this second time swimming a little longer. Again, I was watched, this time by one woman in her thirties. I swam, slowly, calmly, came out calmly, and I saw a slight smile as she looked me in the eye. This combination of firm eye contact and slight smile was elating. I felt accepted, if only to the first level of Finland winter swimming. I was at the World Winter Swimming Championships at Lake Bled, Slovenia just a month ago, and I saw how amazingly the Finns perform in this, their sport. I met with Pauline after this second time, as she was about to go into the women’s changing room to get changed. I took a couple more dis-robings and robings, going hot in the sauna, then cold in the harbour, then hot again, then finishing with a very brief cold plunge. Finishing a session with a cold plunge (ending cold) me helps the final rush of warm blood to happen, making the final rush of happy hormones high well after leaving a sauna baths. Kulttuurisauna was the best of the day, on a very good day indeed. It was night-time, and I hadn’t been watched from the shore for my final swim. In fact, I watched another lady swim, and witnessed her calm breathing and steady pace - this seemed to mark the right way of swimming at this particular sauna bath. I complemented her on her strength, and she gave me a short lesson in how to breathe correctly in cold water. I felt I knew this already, but there is always more to know, and different ways of doing things. She was very keen on the yoga-breath idea of swimming in cold water – something for me to take away.
Looking out across the water, the moon was fully risen and perfectly placed, and my final swim was a moon-swim, as I mentally climbed the rippling moon-ladder in the water. Only a hundred or so ‘steps’ or strokes up this ladder, but in cold water time seems to expand, and each step was a mindful moment. I thought of where I was, looked right and left as I swam back, head up, trying to be as graceful as possible. After the swim, after sauna-shower-getting dressed, I came out to see Pauline on the sofa. Not in a hurry, I sat down for a few moments and learned a little more of the philosophy that guided the building of Kulttuurisauna. The site needs to face the outer water, the ocean, because that is where people ultimately come from. The energy also needs to be right – the power of the stove mirrors the power of the coal fired electricity plant across the water, where the coal pile is lit up in cool turquoise neon in the darkening light. I don’t really have any view about the beliefs that guided the sauna, of the need to have a pyramid on the roof, other than they guided the build of the perfect sauna in place, energy, and vibe. They did it right. Every sauna session here is a performance, a work of living art, and it’s not for me to have an opinion really, beyond my experience of the place. Which was a very calm, slow, experience one – a transfer of silent power - as Pauline and I walked from Kulttuurisauna into the moonlit night.