Sompasauna is a public sauna in Helsinki that may have started as a social experiment, yet it has now evolved into social proof.
For many of us, especially we Americans who have grown up with fences, keep out signs, liability waiver forms, and unfortunate levels of crime and vandalism, the concept of a free self regulated public sauna is nothing but a utopia abstraction.
For fellow sauna enthusiasts, the concept of Sompasauna is much like that of The Beach, the 1996 novel and subsequent movie that depicted a free life collection of international students, hippy, alternative thinkers who created a self sustaining life and society on a secret island of paradise in the protected archipelago in Thailand.
The beach worked because of trust and cooperation. The small village lived, fished, farmed, hung out, partied in utopian harmony. Everybody was cool… for awhile. And then, like a match to birch bark to start a sauna stove, the precious ecosystem erupted, never to be the same again.
Sompasauna and 612 Sauna Society
I first heard about Sompasauna a few years ago, back in Minnesota around the time I was rolling up my sleeves to help JP materialize his vision, the 612 Sauna Society. JP and I would sit on the bench in my backyard sauna and talk through our shared dream of a mobile sauna in Minneapolis that could be deployed at breweries, lakes, and places in nature where folks could get in a few sauna rounds with kick ass heat, while sharing in spontaneous connections, within a community of kind, thoughtful kindred spirits, and with a wellness vibe.
I volunteered a shit ton of time to help build the 612 Sauna Society Sauna with this shared vision. Sompasauna, like The Beach, was so far away, but so close in spirit to our thinking.
Then, in 2019. I returned to Finland. It was 25 years after my vagabond college hitch hiking days, when I first experienced the wonderfulness of good sauna. My Finnish friend Jarmo Lehtona picked me met me at Helsinki airport. in his one hand was a Battery Energy Drink and the other a 1.5 litter bottle of Vahsa, the Estonian Mineral Water. Jarmo is a sauna pro.
Jarmo led me through a couple days of my 50 saunas in 12 days Finland sauna tour. And Sompasauna was an early stop. Sompasauna was everything I expected and hoped. Like Finland on all levels, Sompasauna exceeded my expectations. “In Finland” Jarmo deadpans “everything works.”
The Sompasauna set up
Two shed roof saunas set along a rock jetty along the Baltic Sea, tucked in the corner of a massive rebuilding site in a former industrial area in Helsinki. As I approached, I spotted sauna bathers scattered about the compound: a few emerging up the ladder from the chilly Baltic, others were sitting or standing randomly between rounds, in quiet contemplation or soft conversation.
The movements at Sompasauna is unhurried, the sauna bathers not at all self-conscious or pretentious. People are cool, and respectful of others’ space and privacy.
In 2019, I recorded my Sauna Talk podcast episode with Jarmo on the bench inside the larger sauna at Sompasauna. We enjoyed multiple sauna rounds, conversed casually with others, and after multiple rounds, I still didn’t want to leave.
The land at Sompasauna was at the edge of development. Regentrification. And within a year of my visit, Sompasauna was relocated to another urban locale, also along the Baltic in transition from Industrial to residential.
You never know who you’ll run into at Sompasauna
“All are equal in sauna” is a common ethos in Finland, and no more evident than at Samposauna. “A lot of business professionals go to Sompasauna” explains Johanna Koskinen. “It’s free and easy.” Here we have the CEO of Iki Kiuas, stopping by on a Sunday morning, cleaning out the sauna stoves, and talking with a guest:
Sompasauna is proving to be an optimistic reality
To visit Sompasauna again was like meeting up with a friendly loving, tail wagging black lab (who likes accompanying guests into the water with their lake plunges between rounds). I followed vague directions, but knew I would find it amongst fast growing birch trees along the Baltic sea shoreline. I walked along the potholed gravel access road towards the sea, then spotted the rag tag assortment of shed sauna structures, scattered about like a camp outpost in Antartica.
Though a new locale, the scene at Sompasauna was everything I remembered and hoped. There are three saunas in action now. And another lean to shed, with an old piano, and a couple acoustic guitars set underneath. Let’s check it out:
Off to the other side, the wood processing station was now more organized than before. Construction lumber and pallet wood were cut to stove length, and neatly stacked under a lean to covering. Three volunteers were taking turns hand sawing more construction wood, turning pallets and remnant construction boards into lengths good for the sauna stoves, red hot and pumping out the BTUs close by. Here we catch up with Mario and his buddy in from Germany:
Like my last visit, people were in various stages of their sauna sessions: hanging out, toweling off, heading into and out of the hot rooms, and working their way to and from the Baltic for endophin rushing cool downs.
How could this place happen every day, in harmony without incident, red tape, or the cops? Juha explains how it rolls:
A delicate social ecosystem
A good part of me didn’t want to write about Sompasauna, for fear of disrupting its precious existence, like what happened when others found the map to The Beach in Thailand. How can this place maintain its harmony? What will happen if or when tour vans show up?. As we pull out of the global pandemic, could Sompasauna become a place where “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded?”
Sompasauna may have started as a social experiment, as a few alternative thinkers volunteering time, building effort and some upcycled materials to erect a sauna in the public domain, for anybody to use, anytime. Just bring some fresh water to make löyly, and maybe some firewood to help pay the BTU’s forward.
The fact that Sompasauna has stood the test of time, and pressures from more bodies joining the experiment, is now social proof that a free public sauna can thrive with one simple rule: “Don’t be stupid.”
As you think about where you live, your town and your community, what would the response be to a public sauna set up like Sompasauna? No waiver forms, no fees, no fences, no police, no policy. Could it happen? Imagine: