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Bathhouse Culture Around the World

Updated: 1 day ago

The PLUNJ sauna and ice bath experience is modeled after traditional Nordic sauna bathhouse culture.

However, saunas, spas, and bathhouses take on many different forms throughout the world. In fact, they seem to have started during the Neolithic Age when people in nomadic tribes submerged themselves in natural hot springs to escape the frigid air during cold weather.

Called the “Great Bath,” one of the world’s earliest known public baths was built in the Indus Valley around 2500 BC in the lost city of Mohenjo-daro. Archaeologists found it in the 1900s in present-day Pakistan.

Cultures throughout the world have since adopted the public bathhouse tradition and adapted it to their own social norms, etiquette, and customs.

Here is a quick overview on bathing practices around the world:

Finnish Sauna

Finland’s traditional stove-heated saunas date back to perhaps before the 12th Century. The country now has one sauna per every two or three people, which implies there are at least 2 million saunas!

The word “sauna," pronounced "sowna" in Finnish, is a Finnish word meaning a hot steam bath. Oftentimes, the sauna is the first room built in a home. It is the heart and warmth of the home.

The steam — otherwise known as löyly — is created by pouring water on the rocks on top of the stove, which heats the sauna. Löyly is symbolic of rebirth or renewal, making the sauna a special and sacred place.

Sauna isn't only a place to bathe and get hot and sweaty. It's also the Finns’ preferred place to socialize. They enjoy taking their drinks into the sauna, blasting the heat and staying inside as long as possible, then going outside into the frigid air and either jumping into a cold lake or rolling around in the snow.

The contrast between hot and cold not only offers great health benefits, but it also produces a euphoric sensation or “high.”

Finland’s oldest public sauna is the Rajaportin Sauna, made in 1906 and located in Tampere.

Russian Banya

Russian banyas have also been around for centuries. Like Scandinavian saunas, they are built with wood and heated by a stove that creates clouds of steam. Russians also have a tradition of moving between extreme heat (banya) and extreme cold (snow or ice water).

During a banya session, people participate in venik platza, a ritual where people lightly beat themselves with a bundle of small branches, typically from birch or oak trees. The process is believed to stimulate blood flow, aid in joint pain and muscle relief, and possibly even ventilate and remove phlegm.

Major Russian experiences traditionally happened inside banyas. For instance, mothers gave birth inside banyas, newlyweds went to banyas together after their weddings, and people would gather inside these special bathhouses to mourn the death of loved ones after funerals.

The Russian saying, pomylsya – budto zanovo rodilsya, means “washed – born again,” and many Russians say that they feel reborn after spending time in the banya.

A fun side note – one of our customers at PLUNJ is from Russia and was born in a banya!

Japanese Sentō and Onsen

A Japanese sentō is a man-made public bathhouse open to everyone and separated by male and female. In a sentō, you may find either saunas, jacuzzis, and/or cold baths, depending on where you go.

A Japanese onsen is a natural hot spring heated by geothermal energy. Therefore, whereas you can find a sentō almost anywhere, you’ll most likely find onsens in rural areas that are close to natural hot water sources, such as volcanoes.

The practice of bathing for rejuvenation and spiritual healing in Japan began in the 500s when Buddhism began to spread there.

In both sentōs and onsens, it is the custom to go entirely nude. If that makes you nervous, don’t worry! It’s a completely normal part of Japanese culture and you’ll draw way more attention to yourself wearing a swimsuit rather than not!

Turkish Hammam

The Ottoman Turks, though it’s unclear exactly when and how, adopted the Roman bath’s architecture and culture but put their own spin on it and called it a “hammam.” It became popular in 600 AD.

The hammam is a place to cleanse as well as relax, traditionally also sans clothing. However, when attending you can opt to wear a bathing suit, or you can wrap yourself in a thin cotton towel for coverage.

In a hammam, you’ll be led by tellak or natir, the male or female attendants respectively, who guide visitors through the bath sections that become progressively warmer.

In a Turkish bath package, you can typically expect these elements:

  • Steam room

  • Body scrub with a handwoven wash cloth known as a kese

  • A massage

  • A cool room

Native American Sweat Lodges

Native American Sweat Lodges started in the 1600s and are traditionally used for spiritual rituals, depending on the way different tribes conduct the sweat lodge session.

Sweat lodge activities are also sometimes considered purification rituals. People gather inside a lodge, perhaps a dome-shaped hut or tent that is covered in tarps, blankets, or animal skins. They surround a pile of fire-heated rocks, and they pour water on the rocks to create steam.

Attendants pass around fresh herbs. A leader guides everyone in song and prayer, and attendants see how long they can stand the heat. In between 25-min sessions of profuse sweating, they take breaks to open the doors and drink water.

Hungarian Thermal Baths

Budapest has an impressive amount of natural hot baths. In modern times, people have built bathhouses around them, including saunas, cold plunges, and massage rooms. Some bathhouses even have outdoor swimming pools.

Each spa throughout the area has its own special feature, such as a rooftop hot tub, wine tubs, or drinking stations.

Because of the minerals in the natural thermal water, such as hydrogen-carbonate, magnesium, sodium, sulfate-chloride, metaboric acid, and calcium, many spas boast that their baths have healing properties. Some studies show that mineral water does have health benefits.

Click here to learn more about which spas you can visit when you find yourself in Budapest.

We Love Bathhouse Culture!

Of course, you can travel all across the world to get some unique bathhouse experiences. We at PLUNJ are honored and excited to share with you the first-ever Nordic-style bathhouse in Utah.

If you’d like a cultural and social experience that offers amazing physical and mental health benefits right in your own backyard, click here to book a session with us!

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