Nothing to hide in Finland
By Samantha Loong
Over summer, I spent a glorious week visiting a friend in Finland. It had been about eight years since we last hung out, so I couldn't wait to see her. In fact, when we spent an evening at a smoke sauna, I ended up literally seeing more of her than I had initially planned.
Finnish saunas are generally done "in the buff," but I wasn't at all fazed, having bathed naked with complete strangers in various parts of Japan before. I've also run naked into the ocean at night with a bunch of friends in Okinawa (only later realizing that we were in front of a hilltop church). So I figured that I was now ready to take the next step — stripping off and entering a small, dark, smoky hut with my friend and her boyfriend.
In the company of friends and family, Finnish saunas are rarely single-sex locations. Which may explain why Finnish women rarely get wolf-whistled at. Perhaps exposed flesh is no longer a taboo when you've grown up seeing all sorts of people naked, in all shapes and sizes.
As I ventured into the darkened room, I waited for that wall of heat that usually hits you in the face when you enter saunas. But it never came. Instead I was washed over by a very gentle, soothing haze. I sat down next to my friends and as we looked out the small window, I realized that this view, and this feeling, must be what chickens experience when you put them into the oven to roast.
In between our long, catch-up chats, we would step outside to plunge ourselves into the pond, before hopping back into the sauna. Before I knew it, a whole two hours had passed.
My confident approach to trying this blissful Finnish ritual can only be attributed to my very first host mother in Osaka, who introduced me to the joys of public nudity. She took me to the Minoh hot springs during my first week in Japan. In the changing rooms, I followed her lead, foolishly clinging to the hope that my "modesty towel" would miraculously grow bigger. She never laughed at the multiple times I asked her "Everything? All? Off? Here?" and even made a point of pointing out the large glass window from which everyone in the ladies' bathing area could see the men bathing below.
I am proud to say that I am no longer the girl who sheepishly oversubmerged herself in the hot pool, giving herself heatstroke later that evening.
I used to question how anyone could find the act of sitting around naked, hot and sweating a relaxing thing to do. But now I see what the appeal is. Although I'm not going to be joining any nudist clubs anytime soon, when you strip off with friends, you're not just removing clothes, you're removing barriers between you. And I think my ideal barrier-free friendship might be one that's spent at a Finnish summer cottage.
Shukan ST: October 14, 2011
(C) All rights reserved