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We do it in Finland, too, and it’s not painful at all. ”Branches” are more like a bunch of thin twigs with leaves. Feels like some kind of light all-body zone therapy massage and increases the blood flow on and under your skin.
As a Russian, confirming what jPekka said, it's not painful at all, quite the opposite.Some people over here like to indulge in swimming in ice cold water too - we call them morzhi, or 'walruses'. These two activities go hand in hand.
"Eisbader" as we Germans call those lunatics are quite common all over the world I think (where you get ice). The twig thing not so much. That said I think the Afrikans considered me and my mother lunatics when were there in the not-so-hot season (back in my 7th school year lol, long ago), and we were going bare-feet in the water on the sandy beach at only 17°C. They looked at us under their thick caps with gloves on their hands like we were sick in the head...
Wait a bit. In russian Banya we have a hot rocks, we do it naked (really, who the hell will wash himself dressed), we like to swiming in a cold water (or just jump in the snow) and yes, we have tree branches (called "venik"). hitting each other is funny (also its some sort of massage)
America white again ^^
Why does Japan have it's towel on it's head?
Because Japanese are used to have hot baths, they use to keep the towel in the head to put it on as soon as they go out the water. Yes, when they bath they usually don't submerge the head.
Actually the first sauna without hot rocks I've visited was in the US. It was a public sauna in Duluth, MN, with some sort of a radiator on the wall on which one threw water.
In Finland we combine actually all but Japan part.
I think most Finns still go to sauna naked, don't they?