Stone lanterns, or Toro, like these were brought to Japan from China well over a thousand years ago. Traditionally, they are linked with Buddhist temples, with different segments representing different elements, and a lit lantern symbolizing a prayer to Buddha. The lanterns express the idea that when we die and spirits leave the physical body, the body then begins to revert to it’s elemental form.
These lanterns, in Nara, are among the oldest in Japan. You can see how the weather has worn them away.