However, once you get into the upper levels, it gets much harder. There are 5000+ words to memorize. Can one actually memorize all these words without using them everyday? What are some better strategies that one can employ?
The solution is in two parts:
1. Learn a little every day
2. Don't forget what you learned
Obviously, being in-country makes both easier. If you are not (like me!), you need some help. You really need some kind of flash card program that has a scheduling algorithm. There are several available; I personally recommend Supermemo.
1. I start by creating a landscape page in Word with two columns. I then fold this in half to get a more portable "flash card"--although in my case I list about 25 words on each side with the word on the left and the meaning on the right. I work through each side until I know the words well, then move on to the next side. I spend about 2-3 days on the entire page, and I learn about 400 words per month this way. (I use spaced repitition - review card at 9AM (takes 5-10 minutes). Repeat several times throughout day. (takes 2-4 minutes each) By the next morning I tend to know most of that side fairly well)
2. Then, I load my electronic cards into Supermemo. It schedules my repititions for me so that I don't forget what I've learned. Before I found SM, I spent a lot of time reviewing and still only had about 70-80% right over time. Now that I use SM it is around 85% and slowly rising.
It's also important to get a good balance of learning from context and learning from lists. My vocab is about 50/50. 100/0 would be ideal but I don't have enough time to do the reading and create the vocab lists for 400 words a month.
So, you see, it is quite possible to learn around 5000 words in a year even out of country. But it requires discipline and some help from a good system of learning.
For more info on SM and some other alternatives, see:
http://www.crisscross.com/jp/forum/fb.a ... =supermemo
Also, ocha no kanji is a great program too. I used it in parallel with Supermemo. The level 2 has nearly 4000 words to learn.