The first time I … walked naked into a sauna in Finland

It’s the start of spring, a time most Finns in the cool, northern city of Helsinki, consider warm. Looking lame in a woolly hat, leather gloves, and bandana over my mouth (to keep whatever little heat in), I make my way to the public sauna.

An authentic Finnish sauna experience is “the soul of Helsinki”, according to the city’s marketing website. It’s a description most of its blonde, blue-eyed inhabitants, would agree with.

So, being the stereotypical kiasu Penangite, I have to try it. But my work schedule’s packed and it’s already late evening. It starts getting chilly but this is a do-or-die mission – even at the risk of hypothermia (it is tradition to jump into the lake, or pool, when you’re done with the sauna).

A Google search lists five places that offer the cultural tradition of getting hot, wet – and nude – with total strangers.

Each public sauna has its own character and locals have their favourites, I learn. But at that hour, I was desperate. A few calls later, I find one that’s open but it would be closing in three hours. No reservations are allowed and entrance fee is 15 euros (RM70). It’s a short taxi ride from the hotel and I arrive at 6pm.

I make my way along the water’s edge to Kulttuurisauna – a wood pellet heated sauna for men and women. Architect Tuomas Toivonen and designer Nene Tsuboi’s eco-friendly outlet has separate changing rooms and saunas, but no swimsuits and towels are allowed inside.

Kulttuurisauna in Helsinki

Having done the whole nudist beach thing before, I didn’t think stripping in public was going to be an issue.

Except, it was.

Suddenly I’m a little self conscious. A short and tanned Malaysian sticks out like a sore thumb in a room full of tall, fair (to the point of translucent) Finns.

I undress and shower. It’s freezing and I’m trying not to look like a cultural noob. I read about how it’s a sacred, family-centred activity. No hanky-panky is tolerated. Saunas are a leave-your-filthy-thoughts-at-the-door kind of place.

I try to see what the others are doing, hoping that no one will think that I’m a pervert. Monkey see, monkey do, right?

It’s quiet inside, almost like a hot, wooden sanctuary. Everyone is respectful. Polite smiles are exchanged. I sit next to a huge rectangular window that looks out into the harbour. The worries and stresses melt like dewdrops on a sunny morning. This is the life.

Then, panic starts to set in when I remember that I’m going to have to jump into the freezing water when I’m done.

The lady next to me notices. “Is this your first time here? I see you’re looking a little nervous,” she asks.

I tell her I’m here to experience the full Finnish package – sauna and skinny dipping.

Aurora Nuuksios traditional sauna cabin at the Nuuksio National Park. – CHRISTINA CHIN/The Star

I ask if it’s legal to swim naked in public. The harbour’s dotted with fishing boats and yachts, and the last thing I want is to make the headlines: “Disrespectful journalist carted off for baring all”.

She’s not sure if we’d be breaking the law but assures me that Finns aren’t bothered with a bit of skin. Sensing my apprehension, she says she’ll join me.

“Come. It’ll be fun.”

Right.

She passes me a towel outside the sauna just as I was wondering whether we’d have to walk to the harbour – a good 15 steps away – in the buff.

It seems like forever, me clinging on to the cold, steel ladder by the waterfront. My new friend happily splashes around, trying to convince me – an islander from tropical Malaysia – that the water’s warm and inviting.

The toes make it in first. My irrational mind starts to wonder if frostbite would set in. I drop the towel and jump in. Suddenly, nudity isn’t even an issue anymore … survival is.

Less than 10 minutes in, I make my way back into the sauna again. I wanted to swim longer but my limbs were on strike. No more hang ups inside the sauna this time. I was just thankful I survived the dip.

I realise I’m hooked on this liberating and relaxing pastime when a short visit to the Nuuksio National Park a week later sees me staring longingly at Aurora Nuuksio’s little red smoke sauna by the breathtaking Lake Kaitlampi.

It’s true, no two saunas are the same. The smell of wood is cathartic – like an intimate embrace. In my birthday suit, I make my way to the chilly green lake. The wind is cold, and I feel alive.

Forget towels and swimsuits, in Finland, they really don’t care about those.