It was early 2018. Matti Kemi and Juha Kumara, fresh out of university, came up with a fascinating project idea: “Why don’t we go on a long cycling trip to explore the saunas of Southern and Central Finland?”
To give you some context. Juha was born and raised in Tampere, the sauna capital of the world. He hasn’t missed a day of sauna since birth. Matti was raised in a public sauna in the northern city of Oulu.
When the whole sauna trip idea hit them, Juha and Matti both lived in Jyväskylä, a town in Central Finland. They were best friends, next-door neighbors and sauna aficionados.
The blue wooden house they lived in was perfect in every single way. But there was no sauna in it. So, every time they wanted to take a sauna, they needed to find one. Public saunas were out of the question, because there was just one in town, and it was open only during the summer.
JUHA: Normally, we would just cycle around the neighborhood and ask friends if they could let us in. Another option was student houses. Each of them had a sauna open for tenants. Quite often, we would just wait for someone to open the door and sneak in.
On a sunny day in June, they packed their backpacks and hit the road. The trip turned out life-changing.
MATTI: We traveled hundreds of kilometers and encountered old smoke saunas, sauna healers and sauna spirits. We felt the call of the sauna. We learned ancient ceremonies and reconnected with the natural elements in sauna.
Along the way, Juha and Matti realized that sauna was not only the glue that kept their friendship together — it was the gift that they just had to share with the world.
MATTI I started to understand more about the depths of my connection to the power of sauna, the healing power of all the natural elements coming together. I felt like if we could share about the wisdom we encountered on the trip people could also get some similar realization about the power of sauna and about being an inseparable part of nature itself.
Now it was a matter of “How?” — how to turn the love for sauna into one’s lifework? How to reveal the true power of sauna to the world? How to help people feel what they felt on that cycling trip? Such were the questions swirling in their heads. Luckily, friendship and the spirit of the sauna cleared a path for Juha and Matti. Every time they sat down to talk to each other, new revelations came.
JUHA I feel there is a vacuum or force that is guiding and pulling us in a good, warm direction. Of course, there are practical issues that sometimes cause stress or raise questions, but the general trust in the power of sauna is always there.
In 2019, they started afresh in Tampere, the Sauna Capital of the world. As it turned out, sauna tours were quite popular with visitors from Japan, and Tampere was an ideal place to run the show because of the wide selection of public saunas. And so, Juha and Matti began to offer guided sauna tours and ceremonies.
They named their lifework Saunakonkeli, which means “sauna bike” in a northern dialect of Finnish.
MATTI Our first sauna ceremonies were really powerful for us and for the participants also. One Japanese guy said it was a life-changing experience and recalled his childhood memories which were empowering. Others said that the ceremonies felt like a rebirth. With sauna ceremonies, it feels like we are holding a space where good things can happen and our part is to be just present and mindful about it and let the sauna do its magic. I feel like a servant and a student with the power of the sauna.
Matti and Juha have come a long way over the past couple of years. Even though Saunakonkeli is still a young undertaking, friends are sure that they are moving in the right direction. They know that they are onto something good and warm in their lives.
JUHA: We want to bring back the connection between humans and natural elements through sauna. Fire, water, earth and air can all be found in nature, in ourselves and in a sauna. Sauna offers us a safe place to align with these elements in their purest form.
To Matti and Juha Saunakonkeli is bigger than a project or a business — it’s the energy they want to share through their presence. It’s the mission they are on. It’s what holds their friendship together and makes them complete. It’s their lifework.
Text: Grigory Kharitidis