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How do you say sauna?

Even in the sauna capital of the U.S., there's a divide.

By Luke Heikkila
graphic reading Minnesota is the sauna capital of the United States
Justin Juntunen's claim must be true. Don't come at me, you Yooper.

Justin Juntunen has a Finnish last name, owns a business that makes saunas and talks about different types of heat like a sommelier talks about wine. Aside from a few Wisconsinites and a handful of Yoopers, who's to argue when he boasts that Minnesota is the sauna capital of the United States?

"Minnesota has a sauna culture, so many resorts up north have a sign advertising a sauna," says Layne Kennedy. Layne and his family do not need to venture north to sauna. After a business trip took him to Finland and he experienced a Finnish sauna, Kennedy, a renowned photographer, recreated an electric version of the experience by building a sauna in the backyard of his Minneapolis home.

Martha and Croix taking some heat.
Martha and Croix Kennedy inside the family sauna.

Many a Minnesotan has brought their body temperature up high enough to make an early June swim in northern lake feasible. As residents of a state that has real winters, I think we can agree that saunas are a good thing - but that doesn't mean that the prevalence of saunas in Minnesota offers any clarity on how to pronounce the word.

Two people working their way to the sauna.
Taking a quick peek, hoping not to let too much heat out.


Someone with a few ounces of Finnish blood - or someone who wishes not to offend someone with a few ounces of Finnish blood - will say sauna so the first syllable rhymes with 'cow'. Juntunen says "sow-na." Layne's wife Martha and daughter Croix, who were interviewed in a sauna, pronounce sauna in a way that the first syllable rhymes with "caw."

As someone with a double consonant and a hodgepodge of vowels in my last name - reminiscent of many Finnish surnames - I bit my tongue. When asked how he pronounces the word, Layne was non-committal. Again, I bit my tongue to avoid offending my gracious hosts. I'm kidding. Sort of.

Who's right? And does it matter?

Decide for yourself by watching the following video, which provides a look at the sauna as a powerful remedy against the daily stresses of life during a pandemic and more generally.


Taking a cue from Juntunen, I am going to take it upon myself to resist correcting someone's non-Finnish tongue when they say '"aw-na." Instead, I will simply assume this person has not yet had the opportunity to experience the real deal: the wood, the stone, the water and the marriage of these three essential elements. The telephone-melting heat. The wonderful shock of a cold dip, as the post-sauna steam floats off your body, and carries your stress and worries into the night sky. The combination of these experiences, whether provided by a sow-na or a saw-na, can be life-enriching during the doldrums of a Minnesota winter.

Sow-na or Saw-na, at this point in their day, Martha and Croix do not care about pronunciation - and I can't blame them.
Sow-na or Saw-na, at this point in their day, Martha and Croix do not care about pronunciation - and I can't blame them.

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This story is made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.

“I’m 45 years old. If I haven’t yet learned to climb rocks, do parkour or ride really fast on a bike down a wooded path, it’s safe to assume it’s not going to happen. Though I firmly believe this is a time when I should be getting outside and into some wide open spaces more often, I also believe this is definitely a time where I shouldn’t be taking up valuable medical space or attention nursing a broken ankle, snapped ACL or concussion. I’m not a risk-taker. Never have been, never will be. I like to keep things slow and steady.” So Twin Cities Producer Luke Heikkila decided to try a little something called “forest bathing.” His experience is your reward.

Photographer Layne Kennedy is known for his editorial assignment work that sends him around the globe to capture the perfect shot for the likes of National Geographic TravelerOutside and LIFEBut while sheltering in place, he’s focused on a newer craft: making stunning wooden bowls from fallen trees in his Minneapolis neighborhood. 

Luke Heikkila Read More
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