“How does it work?” I ask her.
“Towels cost three euros to rent, and the change room is through that door,” she says, pointing to her left. “Come in and out as much as you like.”
Since I’ve also booked a massage, she offers me a choice. “Male or female?” she asks.
“Female,” I blurt out. “Definitely female.”
She picks up the telephone and makes a call. Upon hanging up, she addresses me once again. “Okay, her name is Frida,” she says, fuelling steamy thoughts of an attractive popstar sensuously kneading my back like there was no place else she’d rather be. “She will come and collect you when she gets here.”
I ask her what I should wear. “Nothing,” the woman answers. “Wrap a towel around you when you walk from room to room or if you go outside. Otherwise, you should be naked.” I swear she winks at me.
Inside the change room, the timber lockers look like they might have been the original installations from when the sauna first opened in 1928. I peel off multiple layers of winter clothing then stuff them inside, replacing them with a towel that I wrap around my waist for the walk to the adjacent sauna room. Others forego even that.
The sauna room is dark and clammy and the occupants are mostly older men. I can’t help but notice that all of them are completely nude, some more discreetly than others. When one of them asks me where I’m from – I haven’t said a word, yet he intuitively knows I’m not one of them – I tell him I’m from Australia.
“Oh, Down Under,” he replies. I reflexively cover my crotch.
The man, whose name I don’t ask, suggests I sit on the wooden upper level; the remaining three terraces are bare concrete. “We call it the pipe rack,” he says, referring to the hottest area inside the room.
It isn’t long before sweat begins to drip from my brow and pool at my feet. My nasal hairs also feel like they’re burning whenever I inhale and I start to wonder how long I can last when a tall, slender man pokes his head around the door.
“Anyone order a massage for three o’clock?” he shouts through the mist.
When no one answers, I gather he must be referring to me. “I did,” I reply, hesitantly, “but with Frida,” realising all of a sudden that Frida might be a man’s name in Finland, where they call their sons Kimi and Keke and Lasse.
“Your hotel rang and booked me directly yesterday,” he explains.
“Bugger!” I murmur, perhaps a little too audibly. “I guess it’s me then.”
I’m directed upstairs, where my masseur busies himself layering paper towels over a massage table that’s placed in the centre of an otherwise spartanly furnished room.
“Come. Lie here, face down,” he instructs.
“What do I do with my towel?” I ask.
“We can use it like a blanket,” he says to my relief; it means I won’t be completely vulnerable.
From that point forward, I’m able to relax while the 25-year trade veteran works on my back, neck and shoulders. Thirty minutes later and I’m wishing I’d booked an hour-long session.
When I leave the sauna and step outside, I feel great. My core temperature remains stable, my skin feels clean and my muscles are relaxed. Best of all, any fears I had about romping around naked in a roomful of strangers has been put firmly behind me. So to speak.
Kotiharjun Sauna (opened 1928) is the last genuine wood-heated traditional public sauna in Helsinki.
Entry is US$16 per adult. Massages extra.