In Hot Water: Public Bathing in Native America, Iceland, Finland, and Japan

In Hot Water: Public Bathing in Native America, Iceland, Finland, and Japan

I’ve been in a lot of hot water. I have been beaten by sharp leaves and acorn-laced oak branches in Kyrgyzstan, abused by a drunk masseuse in a Cypriot hammam, enjoyed the toxic pots of geothermal effluvia in Iceland, shattered lake ice in Finland for a cold dip, and experienced the shame and freedom of semi-public nudity in Japan. Growing up in Idaho we would get a used dome tent from the charity shop, slice a circle out of its ground tarp, set it up over a hole we’d dig, cover it in layers of old blankets and sleeping bags, strike a gnarly fire of pine interlaced with lava rocks. Once the rocks sparkled with red veins we’d toss them with a pitch fork into the tent pitkin and cram in, shoulder to shoulder, dousing the rocks with spring water and meeting our maker in a swirl of steam, sweat, dust, moans, pleas, and pain.

I was thinking about these experiences on a recent trip in Lapland in northern Finland. Some of us had be saunaing regularly and one friend hadn’t. On a walk past the sauna one day she gestured to the small birch hut and said, “there is the place for your relaxation.” I felt that I had to correct her. Finnish sauna is far from relaxing, its equal parts excruciating (forcing oneself to remain in a scorching 85-degree room with other sweating humans) and exhilarating (jumping into the freezing lake). It got me thinking about why so many cultures do or don’t embark on these communal adventures with hot and cold water. What is the relationship between water infrastructure, participation, and politics?

Let’s briefly examine four communal bathing scenes I’ve witnessed to see if we can flow this theory into experience.

A Native American sweat lodge

Scrubby aspen and tangled elms form a small enclave amongst the sage desert of the Columbia Plateau. Here a tribal large sweat lodge existed, looking more like a pithouse or a Navajo hogan, with its layers of logs and tarps, along a small creek just outside of the Colville tribal headquarters. We are in Nespelem land, a small Columbia River band, and I had been invited for the men’s evening after my work as a tribal archaeologist. The sweat proceeds in three sessions, all deeply participatory—requiring the shuttling of wood, red-hot basalt rocks, the opening of the weighty insulated door, chanting, speaking, sage burning, drumming. Prayers are spoken of commitment to tribe, land, each other. The fire, the creek for cold plunge, the cool autumnal and evening air are all proximal, ready at hand. The women’s day is Tuesday and Thursday but not today and they too have to strike their own fire, load it with heat-conductive rock, and chant their songs. This participatory nature, the proximity to the elements invites an oceanic and transcendental sociality.

An Icelandic laug

Soft sun, faint blue sky, and cool white concrete ring the assorted lounge and swimming pools, hot pots of increasing heat, cold baths, sophisticated steam room systems. We are expected to bath all proximities and intimacies before entering. After that, however, we are free to lay-about with the Icelanders. Everyone is here–locals have their favourites laugs and commit to them for years. We engage in conversation both light and political—the dominance of women in office, the onrush of tourists in the highlands—as children play with grandparents. Here the fire heating the geothermal waters of Vesturbaejarlaug is hidden in deeply dug-in pipes; unlike at Colville we had paid for this communal experience, this water-made public sphere. The infrastructure making play and discourse instead of spiritual sensuality possible.

Finlandic sauna

A fire burns in a stove in a tiny birch pine cabin in a sparse forest of stunted trees on a glacier lake. Soon this sylvan scene is punctuated with the chatter of disrobing men, mixed, for an allotted amount of time, with women. The stove heats a five-gallon jug of water in an antechamber which also holds an equal amount of cold lake water, used for bathing before entering the chamber proper. Three pine benches, each ascending with heat and populated, shoulder to shoulder, with humans chatting between gasps of hot air and bouts of sweating. Three pints of water on the rock coals, three times, followed by three gang-plank walks on an ice-glazed pier to a chest-width hole that had been punctured from the thick frozen lake. We returned a second and third time, carrying with us lake water to splash on the stones; we kindle the fire on the way in, a cacophony of laughter and teeth-sucking sighs and rock sizzles fill the air. Like the Colville sweatlodge, the Finnish sauna’s infrastructure is minimal–lake, smoke, steam, heat, wood. Likewise, it is participatory, requiring mobility across frozen exteriors and burning interiors, necessitating collaboration, communication, conviviality, and dialogue.

Japanese Onsen

It is easy to get lost deep in a massive multi-story shopping complex yet difficult to believe that somewhere in its guts lies an outlet for geothermal waters. But up two floors in a fast moving elevator is a Japanese onsen, one of Tokyo’s public baths. A hall of small lockers invite your shoes off your feet. A robotic gateway with a multilingual voice welcomes you to a reception where you receive a waterproof wrist pass. Another robotic gateway and another reception provides you with a small (for me) bathrobe, slippers, and two towels. A second locker room for your clothes awaits before you enter the onesin complete with a shower room where you squat on short stools for detailed self-care. Three dry saunas of ascending heat—80, 90, 110 degree centigrade and of different wafting sweet aromas, rank brownish and whitish hot waters offering different therapies, and two cold plunges, 15 and 25 degrees Celsius, challenge your discipline. Men walk between pools carrying only their small towel in front of their penises, an ineffective performance of modesty. No women here, I can only imagine they enjoy something similar, maybe identical. Everything is perfectly provided, this ancient bathing community supported by an invisible infrastructure that pumps sulphuric water in and waste water out. Unlike Iceland and its background infrastructure, in this onesin no speaking occurs, no political dialogue, no moans, no groans—the only sounds consist of splashing waters and the hyperactive, hypertextual television programming in the 90 degree dry sauna.

Getting Out

Early hominids got into hot water in East Africa, Indonesia, and wherever volcanoes and ground water mixed. Sometimes these waters were body temperatures. In these instances soaking was a pure pleasure. But these waters are rarely in the goldilocks zone, of not too hot nor too cold. It required not only curiosity but courage and commitment to explore these smouldering or freezing waters. Soaking most of the time requires discipline. With the architecture associated with sedantism and agriculture these waters were funnelled, and with it pre-existing social power was also channelled. Focused waters could be hotter, colder, and mixed; different rooms could be devised for gender segregation. The connections between the political power and control over agricultural water through ditches and aqueducts is consistent throughout the world, from Mesopotamia, to Yucatan, and Bail. Aqua-infrastructure, as an aid to watering crops or cleaning bodies, manifests power but first it establishes the grounds for participation as represented through interactions with things and dialogue with fellow humans.

Elemental infrastructures have an interesting relationship to participation. On the one hand, water infrastructures like the sewer are designed to occlude participation, communalising services in hidden architecture. In Iceland and Japan we saw this. On the other hand, participation can be facilitated through infrastructure designed to create the conditions for collaboration. The Finnish and Colville examples support this. Children’s water parks and outdoor swimmer’s showers are examples. My point is that infrastructure influences sociality; technologies afford and disclose social interaction. The more complex and submerged, less the participation. The more participatory the infrastructure, the more sociality is conditioned by explicit forms of co-creation and discussion.

3 Replies to “In Hot Water: Public Bathing in Native America, Iceland, Finland, and Japan”

  1. I agree with you. Fascinating dialectic from many northern cultures. I have experiences in Iceland, Canada (sweatlodges in BC and Alberta among First Nations), Finland (with a startling article about sauna and dangers “Sudden Death in the Sauna”), Norway (which uses the traditions of other countries) Russia and the banja, and Mexico with imported North American sweatlodges in the hills about DC) but alas, not in the Caucasus with sharp leaves! The sweathouse-sauna is a raucous and holy place–good to think with, symbolically– much like the human genitalia, very close to God and, if you are not careful, close to the other place as well. Sacred, profane and a bit of ritual rebellion at baring all to the world and the Creator.