There are two things I don't do when learning kanji: spend a lot of time writing them out, or use traditional flashcards.
There are two things I do do: use tool one and tool two below:
I don't spend a lot of time writing kanji, nor do I think it is an important part of learning it. The reason is simple: most of the time you are reading kanji, second typing on a keyboard. If you can distinguish one kanji from another, which comes a lot sooner than actually having learned it, then you can use it. Writing by hand takes a lot of time and practice which ultimately doesn't (or didn't in my case, anyway) speed up your overall aquisition or understanding of it. You may need that skill, but most likely not as soon as you will need to recognise and read.
You need visual aids, of which the best I've found is www.readthekanji.com. It isn't free (well, the lowest level JLPT is), and nor should it be, because it is made by one lonely guy and is thoroughly awesome. If you don't want to pay the 6USD every three months, maybe you aren't that serious about learning Japanese. It's a bargain.
The site works by presenting a kanji or kanji compound to you, and asking for the hiragana reading to be typed as an answer. It uses a spaced repetition algorithm from that point onwards to help you thoroughly memorise the reading. The best part about this system is that the kanji/compounds are presented within sentences. This means that not only do you practice reading in context, but you can also identify when certain readings will be necessary. This is much more effective than learning the different readings for each individual kanji out of context, don't you think?
I back up the foundations learned with readthekanji with Anki. You may have heard of Anki before. It's a free flashcard program with mostly user-generated content. You can download decks of cards on all manner of subjects. It seems that the most popular language is Japanese, which is good news for us. Even better news is that there are decks made by the AccessJ team on there. Just search for AccessJ through Anki and you'll find them.
Readthekanji falters in the amount of repetition of each word. It can be frustrating to study for an hour and only be exposed to three or four new words, and no new kanji. Anki can be set to show a defined number of new cards every day. This is good motivation for studying a minimum amount per day.
You will find that you can also change the appearance of cards, so that if you find it difficult memorising kanji words without first knowing the hiragana reading, you can learn with the reading displayed until you are confident enough to progress to kanji only. Likewise if you prefer to learn with only a Kanji-Hiragana translation, you can remove the English.
Another great feature is that you can use your Anki decks on your Smartphone or eReader via the online version, AnkiWeb. Awesome!
- Using these two tools, I learned a lot of kanji very quickly, and have managed to memorise them effectively. You may still have trouble telling very similar kanji apart, and for that problem I recommend creating your own Anki deck containing the problem characters.
- Indeed, if you are following a particular course or textbook set, you might find it beneficial to create your own Anki decks for all your kanji as you go along.
- Another very popular tool is Heisig's "Remembering the Kanji", which is a series of books that teach the kanji in a systematic way - from the elements that make up different kanji and how they are created. It does so by first teaching the English meaning of over a thousand kanji, then (and only then) looking at the Japanese pronunciation. The method is very effective for remembering the characters. One downside is that because of the structured nature of "building" the kanji as the course progressed, you will find yourself learning very obscure symbols before some very basic ones. If you are in no rush at all to learn Japanese (not going to Japan any time soon / don't have a specific test to study for) then this is a good system. You can buy the RTK books through AccessJ to earn us a few cents (we'd really appreciate it!): Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk
Any other tips are more than welcome - stick them in the comments below.