there are a few brands that offer good bang for buck on Japanese style knives that could work for your budget
far as i can see there are 3 things you need to work out:
1) Steel - do you go carbon or stainless? stainless will probably be cheaper, and will be easier to maintain. but lots of people love carbon and they take a better edge quicker.
2) Wa handle or western handle. Just a question of taste really
3) What you want to include in the set.
i think a classic set would be something like the following 5:
* petty (120-180mm)
* chef or gyuto (210-270mm)
* sujihiki (suji) or slicing knife (240-300mm)
* bread knife (240-300mm)
* plus something to deal with bones. could go for a Honesuki, or a heavy duty chefs knife. (150-240mm)
but maybe you'd rather just do 3 knives of a higher quality?
some examples and costs below
Tojiro DP (Stainless Steel)
(you can get japanese wa handle, or western handle)
150mm petty - approx $60
150mm honesuki - approx $80
240mm gyuto - approx $120
270mm suji - approx $110
270mm bread - approx $70
total - $440
Fujiwara (Stainless Steel)
145mm boning - approx $65
150mm petty - approx $44
240mm gyuto - approx $83
270mm suji - approx $88
total incl Tojiro DP bread - $350
i also hear Artifex and Carbonext are reasonable choices
EDIT: also seen lots of people raving about the Hiromoto GS knives (was trying to remember that earlier but never came to me).
if you wanted to go for a heavy duty chefs knife as the one to deal with bones, then i think i read someone recommending the Forschner / Victorinox Cimeter. it's not Japanese but for this kind of knife it can make sense to go with thicker western style knives. and you can get the 10" for about $35.
here's an example set which probably wouldn't be hideous:
150mm Fujiwara petty - approx $44
240mm Hiromoto GS gyuto - approx $165
250mm Forschner / Victorinox Cimeter - approx $35
270mm Tojiro bread - approx $70
total - $314
that leaves you $186. then you could also get a couple of stones (maybe Beston 500 and Bester 1200 - total cost around $100)
this is all assuming you meant $500 each, and not total for 2 sets.
Edited by ruscal - 4/24/13 at 10:12am