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Bathhouse Culture Around the World

The PLUNJ sauna and cold bath experience is modeled after traditional Nordic sauna bathing culture. However, saunas, spas, and bathhouses take on many different forms throughout the world and 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.


Want to learn more? Here is a quick overview on a few different types of bathhouses 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’ 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 is a place to bathe, get warm, and it’s even 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, which have also been around for centuries, are similar to Scandinavian saunas in that they are built with wood and heated by a stove creating 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, which is a ritual of lightly beating oneself 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.


Traditionally, the banya was a place always part of major Russian experiences. 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 a loved one after the funeral. 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.


Here is a fun side note — one of our customers at PLUNJ is from Russia and was actually born in a sauna!


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 began in the 500s when Buddhism began to spread in the country.


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 if you wear a swimsuit!


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 sans clothing as well. 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. Times in the seat lodge are also sometimes considered to be 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 rocks which is heated by a fire, and they pour water on the rocks to create steam. Fresh herbs are passed around. Being led by a leader in song and prayer, attendants see how long they can stand the heat, sweat profusely, and take breaks every 25 minutes or so 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 which also include saunas, cold plunges, and massage rooms. Some even have outdoor swimming pools.


Each spa throughout the area has its own special feature, such as a rooftop hot tub, wine tubs, and a drinking station. Because of the minerals in the natural thermal water, such as hydrogen-carbonate, magnesium, sodium, sulfate-chloride and 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.


That’s a Wrap!


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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