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Although the imagery may differ slightly, it is a vision common to many cultures: The heat is searing. Every inch of your body burns. In the dim light of the fiery coals you discern gnarled faces, each lost in their own story; but all of them equally naked, all judged. Behind you a face twisted with delight administers another stinging lash to your back. You groan softly.

In New Zealand culture, we call this vision Hell. In Finnish, it is called a sauna. But don't let the familiar name confuse you - in traditional Finnish society this is more than just a steamy room at the gym - it is arguably just as important as the fiery netherworld itself. Finns have been cooking themselves in little wooden versions of eternal damnation for well over a millennium.

Before a small town called Nokia became a household name, the sauna was Finland's most famous export to the world. Different versions of it - from the high-tech infrared to the original smoke sauna - now exist in homes and hotels all over the planet.

But hundreds of years before the convenience of electricity and the Hilton hotel chain, the sauna was a mystical place, peculiar to this part of the world. In ancient Finnish culture it was a space where gender did not exist and where the life spirit was affirmed.

It was in the sauna that women gave birth - the small room was the most sterile part of the house - and where the dead were prepared for burial.

Although I haven't tripped on any cooking cadavers or newborn babies since I have been here - thankfully those traditions were put to rest a long time ago - the sauna still holds a more important place in Finland than in other countries around the world. I think this is something difficult for an outsider to comprehend, ironically perhaps because the word and the basic concept are both so familiar.

Some light is shed on its cultural place by the old saying that one should "be in the sauna as in church", which I am told relates to the behaviour expected in a sauna, rather than an indication that Finns once attended church naked (you never know over here).

Although the saying is out of date, it still makes some sense. As in church, respectful, subdued behaviour allows other people the opportunity to fully appreciate their experience. Free of outside distraction, I find closing my eyes and drifting off into my own world comes as easy in a sauna as it does in church.

Otherwise, I'm not sure that as an outsider I will ever fully understand its significance. Not that it really bothers me - I love it anyway.

At the moment Sanna and I are looking after a house with an electric sauna. Now every night before dinner instead of watching The Simpsons, I watch the glowing coals. Instead of laughing away the evil spirits that have accumulated during the day, I sweat them out.

As it is the humidity rather than the air temperature which really scalds the skin, if I have been especially wicked during the day and in need of a serious purge, I will pour lots of water on the hot coals.

Alternatively, if I was a force for good in the world, I will reward myself by adding a little beer to the ladle before throwing it on the coals. This releases the smell of the ingredients used to make the beer, an aroma deliciously similar to baking bread. To enhance the experience even more, it is customary to bind birch leaves together and lash each other's backs with them. Luckily for Sanna the birch trees have no leaves this time of year.

Usually after about fifteen minutes of this treatment I will start to feel overcooked and so take a break. At the moment there is fresh snow, so to cool off I dash outside, lie down and make a quick snow angel. Unfortunately, as we have no backyard I am forced to roll around in the snow on the street.

This means that along with hypothermia and cardiac arrest there is the risk of offending the neighbours. This doesn't stop me - after all, the guilt of causing offence is easily sweated out with another session of penance.

Alas, this daily sauna ritual is only temporary. Normally, when living in my own apartment, I only have access to a sauna at my swimming pool. At the pool, instead of beer to create atmosphere, there are old naked men. This not all bad - it makes me feel young and toned - but I generally prefer the aroma of fresh bread over frying bottom sweat.

Aside from the less relaxing smell, I also find it easier to fully unwind without worrying that someone will start talking to me. I enjoy making snow angels naked, but prefer to make small talk clothed.

The upside is that occasionally one of the old men will have something interesting to say. Often it will be about the health benefits of saunas, which are far too numerous to list here. According to Wikipedia, they are good for almost every conceivable ailment from anorexia to obesity.

Of course, Finns have known of the curative properties of saunas for hundreds of years.

There is another old saying that goes "if booze, tar or the sauna won't help, the illness is fatal".

The saying, along with the supposed health benefits, is that much more plausible when the person telling you looks as if he might be over a hundred. Not that you feel like arguing anyway when the temperature is 90 degrees and the old fellow is naked.

Better to just close your eyes and relax.

- Matt Kennedy-Good
Pictured above: Matt Kennedy-Good exposes himself before the fiery depths of Finnish culture.