This quarter I finally bit and taking Japanese 101, despite the 8:30 class time. When we were starting out with the hiragana we had to write them in a workbook, learning a few characters a day. I didn’t remember jackshit about which character is which or what something is supposed to look like – writing the same character over and over isn’t effective at all (at least for me it wasn’t, I have a really bad memory), except ‘ki’ for some reason. Probably because I kept saying kikikikikikikikikikikiki as I wrote each line. A random string of characters would work better.
Which leads me to: songs! About the only things that are regularly translated to romaji are lyrics, since everything else is directly translated to English for the people who don’t know Japanese, and the ones who do know Japanese can read in the original kanji/hiragana/etc. But songs are for singing so you need to know how they’re said, hence the giant surplus of romaji that’s in relatively random (for this purpose) order.
Update: I used this method when we had to learn katakana, and it worked like a charm just like it did with hiragana. I don’t have trouble distinguishing between them or recalling the right character either.
Keep looking back at a hiragana chart when you find a word you don’t recognize, transcribe more, look back, transcribe, and keep going. You don’t have to worry about messing up the rules (like using the ‘ha’ character for the ‘wa’ particle instead of the ‘wa’ character), because the purpose is just to practice hiragana. Bonus points for stalking a TA to ask them how to spell words like ‘matta’ or ‘nyaa’ and learning some extra rules of hiragana before the rest of the class.
By the time I was done with the song, which only took a few hours (and it was actually FUN for me) I learned all the hiragana in the alphabet. Other students kept using flashcards and only did the characters that were assigned for homework each time, and took weeks to learn the hiragana and be fluent enough. With this method all it took was one song, and before a quiz I would just pull up the lyrics for another song to transcribe for review and just to make sure I didn’t forget something.
If you’re just starting out with learning Japanese, either in a class or by yourself, give this a try! (I probably should’ve published this closer to the beginning of the school year, but you know, procrastination and laziness).