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  • Arts & Culture
  • Issue 38

Cult Rooms

Drink two to four glasses of cool water after each sauna; the average person will produce a pint of sweat during even a short session. Photograph: Ruth Kaplan

Peter Smisek wallows in the glory of the bathhouse.

Banya, sauna, hammam, bathhouse, spa, sentō, jjimjilbang, sweat lodge. Throughout much of the world, a weary traveler will sooner or later stumble upon some combination of water, steam and communal nudity. Used, in varying measure, for recreation, hygiene, spiritual enlightenment or social (and sometimes physical) intercourse, each one presents a distinct set of
spaces, rules and rituals.

Some bathing cultures are a result of happy geomorphological accidents—think of Iceland’s rugged thermal pools or the refined Japanese onsen. Some encourage indulgence, like the opulent spas of continental Europe; others, like the Finnish sauna or the Russian banya, foster a more egalitarian spirit. But there are cross-cultural commonalities among all that oscillate between hedonism and asceticism, between pleasure and virtue. Remote Russian villages and some private homes still feature traditional banyas, but they were gradually adapted to the more


This story is from Kinfolk Issue Thirty-Eight

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