How many of you find the current textbooks lacking in teaching you basic stuff? I've yet to see anything that teaches the verbs of putting on a shirt, taking off the shirt, and ones concerning your pants (trousers).
I'm finding that I'm progressing at a better rate when I only learn words used on an everyday basis, or in subjects I'm interested in. I've been asked many times what's the English word for (blahblah). The person looks shocked when I tell them I don't know that Japanese word, and they'll either have to draw a picture or find a dictionary.
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There are a bunch of Jpod lessons on putting on clothes as well. I'm not sure what they were called though.
I understand what you mean about 'basic' things not being covered (I had to look up the word 'to smell' the other day), but when you think about the range of topics that can be considered 'everyday', the words probably number into the thousands.
As for remembering vocabulary, it's a strange and unpredictable process. I read the word まゆげ about 6 times, and still couldn't remember it until I added it to Anki (and reviewed it 4 times ) . On the other hand, I read the word 客観的 once, and then heard Natsuko use it in a lesson along with 主観的, and the pair stuck straight away.
On smart.fm this user makes interesting themed lists on topics like "At Home" "In the Kitchen" "Health and Nutrition"
I once came across a list on about.com of daily tasks, from getting up, dressing, eating, washing etc that went through a typical day in verbs (and I think their allied nouns). However I now can't find the list. It would be an interesting exercise to compile a list like that. At least it would address your particular needs if you do it yourself.
Indeed your idea of only bothering with the words you immediately need is a valid one, and as good a way of any of prioritising your vocabulary.
I think textbooks tend to deal with broad grammar points and basic vocabulary rather than get very specific. However most will cover haku, kiru, suru, kakeru for putting items on your body covered by "wear" in English. (and nugu immortalised in the song title "Sailor Fuku Wo Nugasanaide" from the wholesome Onyanko Club)
Here is another interesting list (in English) of the most useful basic phrases to know.
http://www.lingua.org.uk/voc.html translating to Japanese is a user exercise!