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Art of Schvitzing, Finnish style diplomacy wins big

Diplomatic meetings can at times be highly stressful. Each side comes in with separate agendas looking for resolution.

There are a few tools a diplomat can use to put the other side at ease: one is a good meal with pleasant company, another is over a round of drinks, but in Finland they have a completely different tool that undresses both the person and the challenge.

A couple of months ago, Finland’s Foreign Ministry won the Steam Spirit Prize for promoting sauna culture abroad.

The Finnish Sauna Society hailed Finnish diplomats for using saunas to help forge international relations.

“Saunas are, at least we feel, something very special,” said Finnish Ambassador Pekka Wuoristo to The Korea Herald.
Finnish Ambassador Pekka Wuoristo’s summer cottage in Palkanevesi, north of Helsinki(Ritva Wuoristo)
Finnish Ambassador Pekka Wuoristo’s summer cottage in Palkanevesi, north of Helsinki(Ritva Wuoristo)

Wuoristo noted that in general, many, if not most, households in Finland have their own personal sauna but once in the countryside, virtually all country homes are blessed with a room to shvit.

The humble wood-fired sauna is a cornerstone of Finnish culture. Today the heating element has been updated using electrical furnaces but the idea of sharing a shvit with family, friends or colleagues continues.

Ritva Wuoristo, the ambassador’s wife, explained that Finnish saunas are not merely a place to wash, but a place that is the center for the family.

“It was a place to keep yourself clean, it was also a place where women gave birth because it’s a clean warm room with running water,” she said.

In the high-power world of diplomacy, Finnish President Urho Kekkonen in the 1970s was known to hold diplomatic meetings in his sauna, while today’s Finnish peacekeepers build saunas in every camp they are deployed, even in places like Chad and Afghanistan.

The sauna is an inseparable element of Finnish diplomacy throughout the world.

The ambassador explained that virtually every Finnish Embassy or residence has a sauna, including his residence here in Seongbuk-dong. 
Finnish Ambassador Pekka Wuoristo (right) and his wife Ritva welcome a peek into the sauna at their residence. (Yoav Cerralbo/The Korea Herald)
Finnish Ambassador Pekka Wuoristo (right) and his wife Ritva welcome a peek into the sauna at their residence. (Yoav Cerralbo/The Korea Herald)

The idea is simple: to forge friendships, make arrangements while building on peace.

“It has been a kind of tool to have a discussion in a relaxed atmosphere,” he said.

Even though he has a sauna in his residence, the Wuoristos did visit a local sauna once.

The difference they found was great. The first thing they noticed was the room’s temperature. Finnish saunas are heated to about 70-80 degrees Celsius while the sauna Wuoristo visited here was heated to about 120 degrees Celsius.

Another main difference was that people in Korea would sit on the floor while in Finland and other Arctic countries, people sit on wooden benches.

Also, saunas in Korea, also known as jjimjilbangs are generally stone covered rooms. In Finland, the entire sauna is made from wood which gives off a sort of relaxing smell, much like a form of aromatherapy.

Part of the Finnish Sauna Society’s mandate is to build links with similar organizations in other countries.

The Society has links with many countries including Japan and China but nothing yet with Korea.

Wuoristo said that his embassy has tried many times to locate a proper sauna society in Korea but at every turn could not make a direct connection.

“I was surprised that we couldn’t find a sauna society in Korea since there are saunas on almost every street and in every neighborhood,” he said. “It would be interesting to have more international cooperation.”

By Yoav Cerralbo (yoav@heraldcorp.com)
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