The Northern Lights in Finland. (Photo by David)
By Marc Milsten
Finland. The country that gave the world saunas, Nokia cell phones, Molotov cocktails, the Linux operating system and Moomin is an interesting and unique nation sandwiched between Russia and Sweden in the far north of Europe.
What exactly do I mean by interesting and unique? Well, the 14th annual Wife Carrying World Championships will be held in Sonkajärvi, Finland this year. Or if music is more your thing, then you can head to Oulu, Finland, where the Air Guitar world champion has been crowned every year since 1996 – Ochi “Dainoji” Yosuke of Japan won in 2006 and 2007. Just want to sit around? Try the World Sauna Championship in Heinola, where the starting temperature is 110ºC (yes, you read right — Celsius. That’d be 230ºF.). The Japanese television company Nippon Network filmed documentaries there in 2004 and 2007.
This past Christmas, I made my fifth trip to Finland. No, I didn’t defend my air guitar title; I actually went to visit relatives in the small town of Malax, population 5,517.
My first trip to Finland was in 1994. I was 15 years old and traveled there with my grandfather to meet his cousin, whose family I stayed with for the next six months. The plan was to go to school and have my own exchange student experience. We landed in the capital city of Helsinki and spent the next week exploring.
Helsinki: Churches, Food and Shopping
Helsinki is situated on the southern coast of Finland and is home to about 560,000 people. It’s a walkable city filled with amazing architectural gems that beg to be examined. One such place is the Rock Church. Temppeliaukio Kirkko in Finnish, this church is exactly what the name describes — a Lutheran church blasted out of a rocky outcrop in the center of the city. With a dome made entirely from copper wiring, it is definitely a sight worth seeing.
The Helsinki Lutheran Cathedral is not quite so tucked away. Set a block away from the harbor, this impressive white building with a tall, green dome dominates the city’s skyline along with the deep red Uspenski Cathedral. These churches are impossible to miss if you are arriving aboard one of the many ferries or cruise ships connecting Helsinki to the rest of Europe. The Lutheran Cathedral was completed in 1853 as a tribute to the tsar of Russia. Uspenski Cathedral was completed a short time later, in 1868, and is said to be the largest Orthodox church in Western Europe.
Helsinki Lutheran Cathedral. (Photo by Marc Milsten)
Between the Lutheran Cathedral and the harbor is Market Square, a great place to visit if you want to buy souvenirs or try some Finnish food. What is Finnish food, you ask? Finland is a meat and potatoes sort of place, notable for oat, wheat and rye products, smoked fish, potatoes, cheeses, berries such as cloudberries or lingonberries and salmiakki, a salty liquorice-flavored type of candy. My personal favorites include pulla, a sweet bread eaten with coffee; näkkileipä or knäckebröd, a hard bread usually topped with butter and a local cheese; riisipuuro or risgrynsgröt – rice pudding; and moose steak or moose meatballs. Finns also love their coffee. They are actually the world’s No. 1 drinkers based on per capita consumption.
What about those souvenirs? If you’ve set your sights higher than reindeer antler bottle openers, then you’re in luck. Finnish design is popular around the world. Textile and fashion company Marimekko has everything from tablecloths to dresses to handbags. The Iittala company’s most famous products are the glassware designs of the famous Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. Aarikka produces handcrafted wooden jewelry, mobiles and home goods. Those orange handled scissors in the drawer back home? They’re probably made by Fiskars, a Finnish metal and consumer brands company founded in 1649.
A visit to Helsinki wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the main venue built for the 1952 Olympics. Finland, a country with the world’s northernmost McDonald’s, must have hosted the Winter Olympics, right? Nope. The 1952 Summer Olympics were held in Helsinki, and the 72-meter Olympic Stadium tower is a great place for a view of the city. There’s even a youth hostel located within the stadium complex. Not many people can say they’ve stayed at an Olympic Stadium. On this trip to Finland, I opted for a more central hostel during my two nights in Helsinki and stayed at Erottajanpuisto Hostel. Only a short walk from the train station and tram lines, Erottajanpuisto Hostel is a great base when exploring the city.
Helsinki Harbor, with views of Helsinki Lutheran Cathedral (left) and Uspenski Cathedral (right).(Photo by Marc Milsten)
Small Town Finland
Winter in Finland is a study of extremes. It is extremely beautiful, extremely peaceful and extremely cold. The day I was to land in Finland, the snow decided to arrive with a vengeance. My flight was delayed five hours in Tokyo and when I did finally get to Finland, the whole country was blanketed with a healthy coating of snow.
In the small town of Malax, the snowcovered wheat fields were dotted with homes whose windows flickered with candles and Christmas lights. The snow seemed to muffle the sound of everything but the crunch of footsteps. The nightly temperature dropped down to -22ºC (-8ºF )a few times, and the daytime temperature rarely rose above -10ºC (14ºF). The sun rose around 9:30 in the morning and set at 2 in the afternoon. In these conditions, the best way to start the day is with a sauna.
Saunas are part of the Finnish way of life. Nearly every home or apartment has one. A traditional sauna starts long before the actual sweating, when a fire is made to heat the rocks above the stove. Once the room is sufficiently heated to above 80ºC (176ºF), the sauna is ready. Water is poured on the rocks to raise the humidity as the temperature rises, sometimes higher than 110ºC (230ºF). Birch branches are sometimes used to whisk your body to improve circulation, open your pores even further and provide a pleasant woodsy aroma. When you don’t think you can take the heat anymore, it’s time to cool down. In the winter, rubbing snow all over your body is a nice way to refresh yourself and cool down. If you’re near a lake or the sea, a hole might be cut in the ice for a quick dip. Or simply a cold shower will do. This heating and cooling process is repeated three or four times. When you are finished, it’s time to take one last shower to rinse the sweat away and then relax with a cold beer and sausage. Or, in the morning, a fresh, homemade pulla, some coffee and knäckebröd.
Malax Church, near the city of Vaasa. (Photo by Marc Milsten)
The day before Christmas Eve, I went with my family to Malax Church to light candles at the cemetery for our family members who had passed away. As the sun set, and the candlelights danced on the snow in front of headstones, I felt lucky to be able to experience the Finland that exists away from the big city. The small towns, filled with old churches, snowcovered fields and cross-country skiing neighbors, are the best way to experience what Finland really is.
Like many Finns, my relatives have a mökki, or summer cottage. Most mökki are constructed near water, and with nearly 188,000 lakes and 180,000 islands in Finland, this is an easy thing to do. Almost all mökki are built with a sauna. My relatives actually own a small island, with three cottages and a sauna. In the summer, they take boats out to the island and spend the day hunting for mushrooms or ducks, fishing, playing cards and relaxing in the sauna. The nights are filled with campfires, beer, stories and laughter. In the winter, when the sea is frozen, snowmobiles are used to get to the island. The flat, white expanse reaching out to Sweden is a beautiful sight, Finland’s nature at its finest.
A trip north to Lapland is where you’ll find that northernmost McDonald’s. It’s also where you will find Santa Claus. Yes, the real Santa Claus. He lives in the Santa Claus Village on the Arctic Circle, 8 kilometers north of the city center of Rovaniemi. Rovaniemi is also the base for anyone hoping to see the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. The number of auroral displays in Lapland can be as high as 200 a year, which provides an excellent chance to catch that beautiful phenomenon. Tourism is an important industry in Lapland, and there is certainly no shortage of hotels, restaurants and package tours.
Finland is a wonderful mixture of timeless traditions, untouched nature, cutting edge technology, innovative design and people proud of who they are and where they come from. No matter what your purpose is upon arrival, you will no doubt leave with a desire to return and experience more of this country and the Finnish spirit.
The most direct option, and the only option when traveling from Japan, is by plane. The flight is just under 10 hours nonstop from Narita to Helsinki–Vantaa. I purchased my ticket online from Finnair.com and the price was 110,000 yen. The Helsinki–Vantaa Airport is serviced by most major airlines, including Finnair and SAS. Connections to the Helsinki city center are easy, with airport buses making the 45-minute trip multiple times each hour for 4 euros.
A more leisurely and scenic option is to arrive in Helsinki via one of the many ferries that travel to and from Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, Germany and various other ports of call. These aren’t ordinary ferries, but rather inexpensive cruise ships. Restaurants, bars, dance clubs, casinos, tax free shops and arcades are enough to keep you busy on even the longest journey. Sleeping cabins are available for the overnight cruises and cars are easily accommodated if you want to take your rental along. The main companies are Silja Line and Viking Line. Both have comprehensive websites that provide all the information necessary to plan your next trip.
A ferry from the Silja Line floats on the icy bay. (Photo by Marc Milsten)
Finland is a bilingual country with two official languages. Finnish is the main language, spoken by 92 percent of the population. The second official language, spoken by just over 5 percent of the population, is Swedish. I’m thankful my relatives speak Swedish because I’ve always thought that Finnish was created as a contest to see how many vowels and double letters can be squeezed into one word. For example, if you want to say “35 people” in Finnish, it’s “kolmellekymmenelleviidelle hengelle.” A simple “Good day” is “Hyvää päivää.” But don’t worry, almost everyone under the age of 50 can speak English at the conversational level, if not fluently.
The state run train company, VR, is clean and reliable but also expensive. It does, however, allow for convienent travel throughout the country. Another option is taking a bus. There are two main long-distance bus lines in Finland, Oy Matkahuolto Ab and Expressbus Oy. Unfortunately, only Matkahuolto has a website in English. A third option is flying, especially if Lapland is your destination. Finnair, SAS and Blue1 fly to every major city in Finland.
Everything Finland — A collection of information and links covering just about anything and everything you might need when traveling in Finland.
Helsinki Card — One, two or three day cards that provide entrance into all major sights and museums and unlimited travel on public transportation.
Oy Matkahuolto Ab Bus Lines — English timetables and ticket information for long distance buses.