Hamam, Japanese & Finnish - bathing culture around the world

The world has never seen anything like the bathing culture in ancient Rome. For three centuries, the Romans competed to build the most prestigious baths – with each building bigger and more magnificent than the last. In the fourth century AD, there were 11 imperial bath houses and 856 smaller establishments in the city, and the largest had room for 3,000 bathers.

The Romans could easily spend a day or more in the baths, enjoying cleansing massages and oil wraps. They ate and drank there, gossiped and bathed. And everyone bathed – from the emperor to the lowliest slave. A fee was charged for using the baths, but the price was symbolic. For some unknown reason, women paid twice as much as men. Children and slaves could bathe free of charge. Today, only ruins remain of the ancient Roman baths, but the tradition of communal bathing lives on in many modern-day cultures. Here are three examples.

What is worse than Nero? What is better than his thermae?*

Maritalis, Första Århundradet

Yasuragi – Japanese tranquillity

For the Japanese, bathing is just as natural as eating and sleeping. Perhaps it has something to do with the calming effect, and because the highly stressed Japanese people need to relax after a long, hectic day at work. Or because their religion highlights bathing as a way to cleanse the soul. Whatever the reason, a Japanese bath in hot springs – onsen – takes time and involves a series of rituals that must be performed in order and at a slow pace. Few experiences can compare with the feeling of sitting submerged in a steaming hot bath, where the silence is so palpable that you can hear your heart beating.

Sauna – Finnish heat

The sauna has fulfilled many functions over the years, and was often the cleanest room in the home. It has served as a laundry room and been used to store food – sauna-smoked ham is a traditional Finnish dish. Women have used the sauna as a birthing room, and it was also here that the dead were washed prior to burial. In short, the sauna is part of the Finnish soul, used in all phases of life from the beginning to the end. It is common for Finnish people to take saunas together as families or with friends, with men and women enjoying communal saunas or ‘bathing’ separately. The sauna is also excellent for providing space for some ‘me time’ in peace and quiet.

Urho Kekkonen, long-time President of Finland, used to meet his Soviet counterparts in the sauna, and made taking a sauna a diplomatic ritual. It is easier to talk naked in the heat than packed around a conference table wearing designer suits.

Hamam – a hint of the orient

A hamam is easy to recognise by its domed roof and its unique heating system, where the heat is radiated through the floor and walls. Hamam originally means ‘mumbling’, which is what you hear when the voices of the bathers fade up into the dome. In the middle of the room stands the ‘navel stone’ – a large marble slab where bathers can lie down and have their bodies scrubbed and soaped in by a bath massage attendant (tellak). There are no pools, as it is considered unclean to immerse oneself in still water. Instead, the water flows freely over the marble troughs and the steam is generated naturally when it meets the hot stone floor. In the hamam, bathers wrap a special towel (pestemal) around themselves to conceal their bodies – no-one ever walks around naked. During the Ottoman age, the hamam played a key role in everyday life, especially for women, whose freedom of movement in society was otherwise strictly limited. If a man forbade his wife to visit a hamam, this was sufficient grounds for her to divorce him.

The hamam was also a place for ritual cleansing, so hamams were often to be found close to a mosque. However, a hamam is first and foremost a place to interact with other people. This is clear in the name, if nowhere else.

7 tips for a better sauna

  • Drink plenty of water to prepare your body for the sweating to come.
  • Always shower before entering.
  • Keep your head cool by wetting your hair – or wearing a wet sauna cap.
  • Raise the temperature gradually as the sauna progresses.
  • Leave the sauna to cool down with a dip in the sea or a cold shower.
  • When you feel cool, it is time to go back into the sauna.
  • A final scouring will leave you feeling cleaner than ever. Enjoy the feeling.