Several of the chief highways of Japan are extremely ancient. Such are some of the roads near Kyōto, and the Nakasendōō running the whole way from Kyōto to Eastern Japan. The most celebrated road of more recent origin, though itself far from modern, is the Tōkaidō, along which the Daimyōs of the western provinces used to travel with their splendid retinues to the Shōgun's court at Yedo. The Ōshō Kaidō leading north, and the Reiheishi Kaidō leading to Nikkō, are other great historic roads. Many roads in Japan are lined with tall cryptomerias and other trees. Shortly after the introduction of telegraphy into the country, the Japanese began to hew down these monumental trees in their zeal for what they believed to be civilisation. The telegraph-poles would, they thought, show to much better advantage without such old-fashioned companions. A howl from the foreign press of Yokohama fortunately brought the official Goths to their senses, and after the Tōkaidō had been partially denuded, the remaining avenues were spared.
In too many of the newly built roads, though the engineering selection may be good, the execution is bad. Roads are made of clay and dirt only. They run over artificial embankments supported by mud foundations, there is no sufficient provision made for carrying off water, and the gradient of the hillside along which the road itself is carried is left much too steep. Holes, ruts, and landslips often attended with loss of life, are the result. There is no idea of macadamising. As for mending, that is done by cart-loads of stones or earth, which effectually supply travellers with dust during the dry weather and a slough of despond whenever it rains. Sometimes twigs of trees and even old castoff straw sandals are utilised as materials for road-mending. In Tōkyō itself, the capital of the empire, the roads are a scandal. Down to the present day they continue to be there made with block-stone foundations, on which are poured layers of round pebbles and earth or fine sand. The cruel labour entailed on jinrikisha-men by such a system may be imagined. Something, no doubt, should be put to the account of the loose volcanic soil of the great Tōkyō plain and of Eastern Japan generally, which does not lend itself easily to good road-building. It is in the province of Ise, in some of the larger islands of the Inland Sea, and along the shores of Lake Biwa, where nature provides firstrate material in the shape of disintegrated granite, that the best highways are to be found.
During the years 1880-90, an immense amount of money was spent in opening up mountain districts by means of new roads, bridges, and viaducts. But as the development of the railway system almost simultaneously drew traffic away to other parts, and as the roads themselves were not calculated to withstand the rigour of the climate, and, above all, were not really needed by the scanty peasant population, many have disappeared leaving not a trace behind, while in other cases the narrow but permanent ancient track is preferred, because shorter. The once noted road over the Harinoki Pass and that from Aizu to Shiobara may be adduced as instances.