It doesn't take a lot of effort to be able to read hiragana and katakana but it requires practice, especially because some of the symbols look similar to each other. This page contains some notes and examples I've gathered while learning to read it roughly during a holiday in Japan.
Good guides for learning the symbols are available on tofugu.com. They offer a mnemonic for each symbol so you can remember their pronunciation:
For practicing, realkana.com is an absolute charm that works on mobile, too, and allows you to specify the set of symbols you want to practice (so you can add more as you go along).
Similar Looking Characters
Coupled with the resources above it helped me to group symbols together that look similar to each other, so that I would know what I needed to look for in order to distinguish them:
- ち, さ, き, ま, ほ, は: chi, sa, ki, ma, ho, ha
- わ, れ, ね: wa, re, ne
- ぬ, め, あ: nu, me, a
- フ, ワ, ウ, ラ, ヲ: fu, wa, u, ra, o
- ユ, コ: yu, ko
- シ, ツ; ソ, ン: shi, tsu; so, n
- モ, チ, ヌ: mo, chi, nu
- い, リ, ル: i, ri, ru
- ノ, し, レ: no, shi, re
Font Variants / Handwriting
- The line for hiragana き (ki) and さ (sa) are often not connected, as shown in Different writing styles for the hiragana "ki" and "sa"?
- In some fonts, hiragana こ (ko) and katakana 二 (ni) look very much alike (both basically look like 二).
- ソ (so) and ン (n) are hard to distinguish in an unfamiliar font. ン (n) is used more frequently so usually reading it as "n" and considering "so" if the reading doesn't make sense is a cheap and fast way to go about it in the beginning.
Other Tips / Notes
- Save a hiragana chart and katakana chart to your phone for when you're out exploring.
- Although I just wanted to be able to read hiragana and katakana (as opposed to writing), I noticed that I knew the symbols much better after also practicing writing the symbols (i.e. not just practicing the pronunciation for a given symbol but also remembering the symbol for a given pronunciation).
- Most learning resources want you to learn hiragana first. It makes sense to do so in order to follow the guides, but in hindsight for my situation, katakana was a lot more interesting: during my stay I got fed up that I couldn't read anything. Since foreign words are written in katakana you have a better chance of understanding something written in that system than in hiragana, which is used for native words.
- For actual practice in the wild: train stations have signs with the train station name in plain hiragana under the "normal" variant with kanji characters. For katakana, restaurant menus and magazines are quite useful.
- Once you get a feeling for how Japanese imports English words into the language you can make educated guesses as to what English word is at the origin. (See katakana examples below.) This works often, but not always.